Can Advertising Make You Smarter?


I just read a review of Everything Bad Is Good For You, by Steven Johnson, at the Developing Intelligence blog. The book sounds like a very interesting read, not in the least because of its controversial thesis: instead of dumbing down viewers, today’s electronic media are actually making them smarter. He notes that national IQ averages have risen about 3 points per year for the last hundred years (but wouldn’t that give us all 300+ IQs?), and also says a 90th percentile IQ in 1920 would land the same person in the lower third of IQs today.

Johnson thinks entertainment media are part of the reason for increasing intelligence – today’s popular television shows, for example, have plots that are multi-threaded and interwoven, and demand more intelligence to make sense of.

Perhaps Johnson covers this topic (I’m still working from the review pending snagging a copy of the book), but it seems to me that advertising is moving in the same direction: complexity, ambiguity, and often subtlety. For every “discount mattress screamer” commercial (hardly complex, ambiguous, or subtle), there’s an athetic shoe commercial that seems to be about anything but shoes. We may see athletes or others in situations we need to work to interpret; actually spotting a branded shoe may require close attention. (A few commercials are so opaque that even media-aware individuals may ask, “What the %$#&! was THAT all about?”. Then again, maybe sparking that kind of question was the point of the ad.)

The Unreasonable Man blog quotes the Harvard Education Letter on a similar topic: how video games effortlessly encourage learning of great depth and complexity and could serve as models for educators.

Are smart TV shows, challenging and adaptive video games, and even mysterious commercials actually making people smarter? Or are those who create the media simply responding to an increasing number of individuals who have the ability and desire to process more complex information?

  1. DevelIntel says

    Re: 300+ IQ, you would be absolutely correct, except that the IQ tests are recalibrated every few years (Johnson points this out, but I didn’t cover it in my review for some reason). As a result, it doesn’t look like IQ is rising so sharply if you just look at raw scores; but if you take into account the fact that the test has been made harder every so often in order to keep the average score at 100, that’s when the trend becomes clear.

  2. NeuroGuy says

    Thanks for the clarification – I figured it was either some kind of recentering process or a percentage vs. point thing. It still seems odd to think that an average guy from today could have taken an IQ test in 1920 and scored off the chart. It’s a good thing “24” starts Sunday, I need another boost. 🙂

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