Whenever I see a new ad for a product or industry, I am relieved and encouraged. Why? Isn’t advertising the most crass, manipulative expression of our capitalist system?

Yes. But more than that, it is a plea to the consumer. And this is a good thing.

You see, when a company advertises, it indicates that they need us. That they have reason to plead their case directly to the consumers, aka the individual citizen.

I regularly see ads for Sutter Health and Kaiser Permanente out here in the Bay Area. This reflects well on the state of private health care (at least for now). It means these companies need us, the consumer, to support them.

Companies that feel no need to advertise are the ones we should fear. It means that their business is assured regardless of their customers (existing and prospective). What sort of companies are these?

Typically, they are industries that are protected by government, and thus have little need for consumers’ direct approval. To the extent that they do advertise, they speak in terms of general good will — just enough to keep it safe for their political sponsors.

Indeed, there are companies that actually use ads to convince you to use less of their product — PG&E, Northern California’s monopoly utility, does just that, in an effort to seem green and thus politically palatable. If they can promote the idea of shrinking their business, you know that government has de facto guaranteed their survival. PG&E becomes indistinguishable from a government agency asking citizens to ration for the greater good.

An adage of the advertising business is that nothing will kill a bad product faster than a good commercial. Consumers are very sensitive to how well a brand lives up to its promise. We may think of ads as lies, but in fact they are commitments to be judged by citizens. This, despite appearances, is empowerment.

It is only when a business feels no need to advertise that we should be worried. Without ads, there are no promises to keep.

The only thing worse than a flashy, desperate ad, pleading for your dollars, is the absence of one.