Recently, I engaged in a regular American ritual — I filled up my gas tank. This gas station experience was unlike every other time. After paying, selecting the grade of fuel, and locking the pump lever, I leaned against my car expecting to zone out and sit with my thoughts while the pump ran. Instead the screen brightened, and a low-quality speaker blared the “word of the day” at me. The word was “asseverate.”* It then began its deluge of advertisements. While I’ll admit to being interested in the word of the day, the advertisement’s intrusion into my routine was offensive and unsettling.
In protest, I recused myself from standing at the pump and — static buildup be damned — sat in my car, opting to receive advertisements through my phone. I expected to only wait a few minutes (I purchased 12 gallons). It felt longer than usual. As though the advertiser paid the gas station to artificially reduce the pump’s pressure to retain a captive audience and play ads at them. Now, that is an anecdotal experience, and I can’t prove if that was the case. It is possible that it felt longer purely because of my outrage at being advertised through a medium I was not accustomed to in a moment I was not expecting.
It seems silly to be outraged at that one gas station ad when the world of online advertising is notably more invasive, but I do find myself wondering:
Are advertisers able to pay gas stations to release gas at variable pressures? If so, what is the maximum time an advertiser can pay for? Have they determined an optimal time before customers get frustrated enough for it to harm business? What is that time limit so I can add it to my time estimates for running errands?
As an ad being played in the 21st century, exactly how targeted is it? How targeted could it become? As the ad played it occured to me I paid with my debit card — an object digitally linked to me — which led me further down the rabbit hole:
Does the gas station have the option to pay a data broker and receive an anonymized profile with my purchase history? Will they use that information to play ads every time my card is swiped at one of their gas stations? If they cannot do that now, how long before they are able to? Say it’s not that in depth, but what if you pay with your credit card? They ask for a zip code. Will they pull demographic data from that zip code and attempt to advertise at you? Should we care?
As an industry innovation, it makes sense. Gas stations margins are thin. Traditionally, the revenue is made up through selling snacks and drinks. But how many customers take the time to also go in to buy something? I imagine some executive, upon realizing this potential, fuming that this entire time they’ve been missing out on ad revenue from all those people just standing there.
And now we’re here. Advertisers sell minutes of ad space at a captive audience and we find ourselves paying for gas twice. Once with our money and again with quiet moments that once belonged to us.
When, if ever, are we allowed to escape endless incessant advertising? And do we want to live in a world where an advertiser could lengthen the time of our chores to inflate their own profits?
- verb (used with object), asseverated, asseverating.
 to declare earnestly or solemnly; affirm positively; aver.