“Would YOU like to live a care-free life of—” CLICK.
Terry grunted in disgust and turned off the advertisement with a much shaper click than was necessary. “Damned ads are everywhere,” he groused.
“All this fancy living we do these days has to be paid for someho-” his mom’s voice chided him from the other end of the vidcall before yet another ad broke in and cut her off. With a muffled curse, he poked at the screen and dismissed that one as well.
“I understand that, but this is just ridiculous!” he exclaimed.
“Terry dear, are you coming down with something? Your voice is very rough,” she said. As she did, he realized that his throat was feeling a bit scratchy. It’s a wonder they haven’t already shown me an add for lozenges, he thought.
“I must’ve caught something at the office. I have to go, mom. I’ll talk to you again soon. Love you.” He fumed silently as the call terminated and yet another ad floated up where his mom had just been. As if in answer to his thoughts, it was proclaiming the benefits of some sort of name-brand cold syrup.
She was right, he knew. The world of the early 21st century was a world of wonders beyond imagining, convenience and luxury such as nobody in history had ever experienced, at least if you lived in the right parts of the world. In exchange, those in the right parts had to deal with the constant attention-seeking of endless streams of marketers.
It was a bit like the lives of celebrities throughout history, applied to everyone all at once, he thought.
It was such a small price to pay. And it was, nonetheless, inexpressibly maddening.
He grabbed the milk to add to his coffee; the dairy’s jingle began to play as the carton sensed the temperature of his hand. “Damnit, I already bought you! I’m already your customer!” He gritted his teeth as he poured the milk. The audio ads were the worst.
He got through breakfast with no less than five more ads before he’d even gotten around to checking the news. He quickly lost count after that; there were more ads than there was news to be found.
He quickly did the dishes, and was just finishing them up when he started coughing. The tickle in his throat was becoming almost more of an itch, and he gulped some water. He washed the glass up, paying special attention to where he’d put his lips, and picked up his tablet. It came to life with the same ad for cough syrup he’d seen earlier. He sighed.
“May as well get some value from them, I guess.” His throat wasn’t too bad now, but he knew what to expect. He hated wasting a weekend on shopping, but give it another day or two and he might not be able to leave bed, he estimated.
He bundled up against the late-fall cold more than he might have otherwise and headed for the nearest bus stop, doing his best to ignore most of the calling advertisements posted on power poles and so many of the other urban surfaces of the city.
The bus ran quietly, and the other passengers rode in silence. Or he thought they did. It was possible the in-transit ads were just drowning out their usual low smattering of voices and shufflings. How had he never noticed that the in-transit ads were so loud before? Had they gotten louder, or was it really just that much quieter?
Maybe it was the bug he’d caught, playing with his perceptions. His head was beginning to swim a bit, and he felt like he was losing his ability to tune the ads out the way he normally would. By the time the bus pulled up to his stop he was so caught up in actually watching the ads that he almost missed his stop. Shaking his head to clear the buzzing drone that filled it, he shuffled up the aisle and out to the street in front of a small but well-appointed strip mall.
The trip across the strip mall’s parking lot took a shocking amount of his energy. He found his attention drawn inexorably to screens showing ads in each shop’s window; it was almost enough to drive thoughts of his purpose from his mind. Cough Syrup, he reminded himself firmly, and punctuated the thought with a string of coughs.
A brightly lit pharmacy awaited him at the center of the strip mall, contributing its own series of ad panels to the attempts at grabbing his attention. Why can’t I look away? he thought as he approached the doors. He almost walked straight into a distracted family of three as they emerged from the exit doors; mumbling an apology, he wrenched his eyes from the panels and back to the space in front of him.
Inside, the store was worse. Every end-cap, every sign, every advertised price seemed to crowd in front of his eyes. Nausea welled up from the pit of his stomach, and he forced his eyes closed to shut out the assault, fighting waves of dizziness.
“Excuse me, sir? Are you alright? Do you need help with something?” A young man’s voice said near by.
“Cough syrup …” he got out before another coughing spasm wracked him.
“Right this way, sir,” the voice said, hesitantly. “You look like you could use it.”
“Why are all the ad panels turned up so bright?” he asked after the spasm passed.
“Sir? I don’t know what you mean,” the young man said, a note of confusion in his voice.
“Never mind.” He opened his eyes, and to his relief there were only a few small tags in the aisle the man had led him to that tried to dominate his attention. “I think I’m fine now, thanks.”
“My pleasure. Hope you feel better soon!” The man, barely out of high school by the look of him, beat a hasty retreat.
What the hell was going on? First the bus, now this? He’d never experienced anything like this before in his life, while sick or otherwise.
He paid for his purchase, avoiding anything that even held a hint of advertising, and was able to keep his vision reasonably steady. He left the store with trepidation, dreading the inevitable bus ride home.
Five weeks later, Terry stared in disbelief at his family doctor. “What do you mean you’ve never seen anything like this?”
“I’ve never even heard of anything like this. It’s definitely unique in my experience, and as far as I can determine, nobody anywhere has seen it before.”
He’d spent days trying to kick the cold or flu he’d come down with, but it had shown no signs of backing off. He felt a general sort of malaise that intensified whenever he was exposed to ads, though as the days and then weeks had passed, he’d noticed patterns to which ads would trigger it; anything he thought of as an advertisement in any sense would seem to grow in importance to dominate his mind, but the effect was devastatingly strong with some particular ads. After two weeks he’d had enough, and had begun consulting with his doctor.
“It doesn’t respond to the antibiotics I put you on initially; not surprising. The lab results are in, and though I’d have sworn it was a bacterial infection, it appears to be some kind of virus.”
“A kind you’ve never seen before?” his voice was incredulous.
“On its own, that’s not so surprising. New viruses pop up all the time. Usually they’re new strains of ones we’re already familiar with, but entirely new ones aren’t completely unknown.” He sighed and looked at Terry with concern. “What bothers me about this is the symptoms you’ve described. We’re going to have to keep you isolated for a few weeks while we run more tests and scans. If it is affecting the functioning of parts of your brain, this could be serious.”
Terry should have been afraid, he thought, but after weeks of inundation in advertising, a few weeks in isolation sounded like blessed relief. “Okay, Doc. If you think it’ll help,” he said. He tried to keep the eagerness out of his voice.
Together they walked out into the waiting room. A newspaper lay out on one of the tables, open to an inner page. The ads on the page immediately grabbed his attention, but not before a tabloidish headline caught his eye; Viral Marketing - Top Tips From the Experts. With a sinking feeling in his stomach, he followed the doctor out to the waiting ambulance.