Adventures in Ethics and Science

ScienceBlogs is introducing a new feature called “Ask a ScienceBlogger” wherein the ScienceBloggers are all asked to respond to a question. (You’d never guess that from the name, would you?) The first question is:

If you could cause one invention from the last hundred years never to have been made at all, which would it be, and why?

I was thinking of going with cell phones, but I don’t really hate cell phones per se — I just hate people yapping on them while they’re driving, and I have seen other drivers create similarly dangerous situations by driving while applying mascara or driving while eating milk and cereal (with two hands, natch) from a ceramic bowl.

Really, the last century’s most loathsome invention ought to be horrible not merely in combination with some other activity (like driving). Its evil ought to be switched on no matter what the circumstances.

Which is why I’m going to go for embedded advertising.

Yes, I understand that advertising pays a lot of the bills for radio and television production (and helps pay the bills for the hosting and such at ScienceBlogs). We don’t generally have to feed quarters into the TV to watch a show. (On the other hand, am I the only one old enough to remember when basic cable was nearly commercial free because you were already paying the cable company?)

In the normal course of events, you get your show and you get your commercial breaks. The commercial breaks may be a handy moment to grab a snack or take a bathroom break, but inertia probably keeps people watching a good number of them. Even with DVRs, which allow you to record programs and then jump through the commercials during playback, sometimes one watches the commercials anyway — maybe a strange image caught your eye as you were jumping through, or maybe your child wandered off with the remote control.

Embedded advertising is different because it’s woven into the content of the show. The products for sale are part of the storyline; if you want to watch the show, you’re stuck with the ads.

Why is this more evil than regular advertising? Instead of being content with access to the consumer (your commercial there on the screen or the playback for the view to attend to if he or she chooses), the advertiser demands your attention. This is a Clockwork-Orange-eyelids-wired-open kind of move, and it’s not nice. Rather than delivering the advertsing equivalent of a bottle of ketchup with your TV show omelette, embedded advertising drenches the show and mashes that commercial ketchup into every bite. If you want your damn eggs, you’re ingesting the ketchup too!

In the evolutionary arms race between advertisers and commercial-evading media consumers, the advertisers seem to have gotten the upper hand … for now. But the consumers aren’t done adapting (those snack foods might well contain mutagens), and it’s probably only a matter of time until embedded advertising is thwarted.

Stay tuned.


  1. #1 Michael Porter
    May 6, 2006

    After reading a number of these responses, I’ve come to the conclusion that tornado animations on web pages is the true evil that must be eradicated!

  2. #2 PZ Myers
    May 6, 2006

    It is ironic that as I read that, a tornado went whirling across the entry.

  3. #3 Jormungandr
    May 6, 2006

    I emailed a portion of my distaste for the HC’s tornado just now…

  4. #4 Fernando Magyar
    May 6, 2006

    If you could cause one invention from the last hundred years never to have been made at all, which would it be, and why?

    Well my choice is older than 100 yrs, circa 1860’s I believe, but in my opinion it is the bane of modern civilization nonetheless.

    That would be the miserably inefficient internal combustion engine that powers most modern day automobiles.

    I would have been more than happy to ride my electric moped to the maglev train station to ride into the city or just stay at home and be in touch by highspeed internet access… Heck, I’d even ride my bike or take a hike!

  5. #5 Norman Costa
    May 6, 2006


    I wouldn’t have thought of it, but your choice of ’embedded advertising’ receives my seconding motion (not that you asked or needed my two-cents.)

    Here are a couple of my own picks:

    1. Software – Microsoft Windows 3.0, and all 3.x descendants.

    2. Urban planning – The Robert Moses template of city and neighborhood destruction in the service of concrete, steel, and the automobile.

    3. Transportation – The US Interstate Highway system and it’s derivatives that destroyed public mass transit and contributed to polution and global warming.

    4. Entertainment – Single frequency (band-splitting) stereo FM broadcasting instead of using two radio frequencies for each of the stereo channels. It was a giant leap backward in radio broadcast technology and quality.

    5. Politics – Airconditioning in the US Capitol Building. Before that, our elected officials closed shop in the summer and went home to their constituents.

    6. Business – Ink jet cartridges that cost $30.00 but should retail for $2.99.

  6. #6 Troutnut
    May 6, 2006

    I think embedded advertising is great. It doesn’t demand any of my time like TV commercials do. In general it allows ads to be both effective and relatively inobtrusive, although your little history channel tornado crosses that line. Furthermore, it’s one of the only ways for people to make a living producing free high-quality content for the web, which is certainly a plus.

  7. #7 Fred
    May 6, 2006

    The lava lamp.

  8. #8 kaleberg
    May 6, 2006

    But, embedded advertising is a 19th century invention. I know that when Jules Verne was running his series Around The World In Eighty Days, steamship companies were offering to reschedule sailings to help Phineas Fogg if they’d get mentioned in the book. How many 19th century authors mentioned products and establishments in exchange for freebies and favors? Basically, embedded advertising flowed from the development of consumer culture in the 19th century, and that flowed from the rising standard of living that resulted from industrialization.

    I hate embedded advertising too, but it won’t be long before your television set has an embedded advertising name remover that looks for corporate names, logos and marks and obscures or replaces them. I’ll be watching for the ad, and I’ll buy one.

  9. #9 SteveG
    May 6, 2006

    SPAM (both kinds)

  10. #10 IrrationalPoint
    May 7, 2006

    Norman Costa, that’s why Macs are so fabulous!

  11. #11 Norman Costa
    May 7, 2006


    I disagree with including the other kind of SPAM. In fact, its value in recent history is beyond measure. NO JOKE! Of all the indespensible things that enabled the Soviet Red Army to defeat Hitler on the eastern front, SPAM from the US is the only food stuff that is universally acknowledged by every veteran and all Soviet leaders. One man’s meat is anoth……

    Now imagine if the internet SPAMers were reprocessed, a la Soylent Green, into something more useful. YUK! I’m disgusted by my own humor.

  12. #12 Leon
    May 8, 2006

    Embedded advertising is probably a good choice. But to offer another candidate…I’ve often thought that the photocopier is something that’s done an awful lot more harm than good. It’s enabled us to waste enormous amounts of paper and has vastly increased red tape in bureaucracies, public and private.

  13. #13 srivlin
    May 8, 2006

    I believe that the worse invention is the TelePrompTer. With it, every shmock is an orator. One doesn’t have to even master the language to read it on the TelePrompTer and look and sound like a great speaker (see George W. Bush).

  14. #14 Uncle Fishy
    May 8, 2006

    It’s harmless. Have you seen any Reeses Pieces in the past 20 years?

  15. #15 Super Sally
    May 8, 2006

    “On the other hand, am I the only one old enough to remember when basic cable was nearly commercial free because you were already paying the cable company?”

    Where were YOU watching cable TV – – ’cause YOUR parents never paid for cable (and still don’t)? And we don’t free-ride, either.

    For the Trademark attorneys out there, you probably want to distinguish benign product placement from more insidious forms of imbedded commercials. There are famous faux pas, such as Best Foods Mayonnaise when the piece is set on the East Coast. But if there is mayonnaise on the table, it needs to have some label on it so it is recognizable as mayo.

    How about the “brought to you by” commercials on public TV and radio, that are sometimes almost as lengthy as their counterpart commercial TV commercials?

    Even more annoying is the self-promo syndrome on news shows (both radio and TV, at least commercial TV): Next up, the story of the congressman murdering his wife and children in Wisconsin, but first this commercial”. And the next segment does not start with (or sometime even contain) that story. Or “See the whole interview tomorrow night on 20/20”.

    If you take out the commercials and the self-promos, I suspect the news content of the standard 30-minute TV network news cast is under 15 minutes; but I am old enough to remember when the great leap forward in network news was extending it from 15 minutes to 30 minutes, before news became a network profit center.

    Much further back in time than the last century, my vote goes to the invention of the drawer. However many there are, we always fill them (to overflowing), and never figure out how to clean them out enough to keep track of what is in them.

  16. #16 ceresina
    May 8, 2006

    You’re not the only one old enough (regardless of whether it was watching or paying). I try to be amused that there are *more* commericals on cable channels than broadcast, but apparently my funny bone needs retuning.

  17. #17 Minerva
    May 9, 2006

    Wow. No nuclear bombs.

  18. #18 Janet D. Stemwedel
    May 9, 2006

    RPM already hit nuclear weapons, and John Lynch took landmines. I scooped up what was left.

    There are lots of unfortunate inventions to go around.

  19. #19 Sean Storrs
    May 11, 2006

    Incidents of child abuse, domestic violence, property crime and identity theft can often be traced back to one root cause: crystal meth. In lieu of hard numbers, you can take a hard look at the human toll this particular invention of ours is taking by visiting

  20. #20 Greg
    October 2, 2006

    Embedded advertising is but a trivial refinement on whatever it is that makes you insist on wiring open your own eyes and watching what you know to be evil.

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