I've been thinking a lot about advertising in terms of first principles lately. One of the things I've been wondering about is the ways in which advertising can be a net positive on the world. I think there are three:
Advertising can be useful for finding out about products and services.
Obviously. Perhaps the most acute example of this is Google's search ads.
Advertising can be entertaining.
Whether or not a particular ad is useful, it can be entertaining. There are many sub-genres of this. Ads can be entertaining in the same way that content or art can be entertaining, i.e. they can be funny, inspiring, educational, beautiful, titilating, arresting, etc. Super Bowl ads are usually great examples of this.
Advertising can support great content and endeavors.
It's hard to do a controlled experiment here and be certain that a world devoid of advertising would have less great content in it than a world full of advertising. However, it does seem likely. Regardless, the world we live in has substantial advertising infrastructure in place, and, happily, that infrastructure is able to provide financial support to many great journalists and artists and adventurers and athletes.
Perhaps not surprisingly, it seems that when most people are asked this question they immediately think about public service ads such as anti-smoking or AIDs awareness campaigns. I agree, but I happen to think that those are simply instances of 1 and 2.