Times Square in New York City is the epitome of American advertising; loud, in-your-face and totally unfocused. Advertising is as old as commerce. Historically, advertising became a major force with the rise of magazines and newspapers in the 19th Century. Today, advertising is dominated by a handful of online mega-corporations, led by Google and Amazon. Advertising is a multi-billion dollar business, but I am certain that unless you are involved directly in the advertising industry, you could not name even one of the top ten advertising agencies in the world.
What does advertising have to do with genealogy? I can answer that question with another. Have you taken a DNA test in the last year or so? If so, why? Of course, I have taken two tests from two of the major genealogical database/family tree companies. But why? Advertising was probably a major factor in your decision whether you realized it or not.
If you want an example of the power of advertising, you only have to look around you at what you have purchased including your electronics, your food, your clothes, and the car you drive. There are very few aspects of your life that are not touched by advertising.
If you ignored the four or five largest, online genealogy companies, the rest of the genealogical community would probably rank as one of the most unimportant and micro-segments of the advertising world. But nonetheless, advertising does play a part in what we do and how we think as genealogists. By the way, advertising is not "bad" or "good" as such, but of course, there is bad advertising and good advertising. For example, I might strongly feel that genealogy should be a universal pursuit and so I am not annoyed by genealogically oriented advertising. However, there are many other things that do annoy me and I am quick to avoid even the mention of certain types of products and services.
Is there a difference between promotion and advertising? We seem to think promoting a cause or a point of view is acceptable as long as we agree with the basis for the promotion. But advertising has the connotation of commerce and philosophically, it falls into a different category. During the almost forty years that I was an attorney, the law profession moved from an absolute ban on advertising, as such, to a general acceptance. Driving down the freeway today, it would be hard to imagine that large law firms advertising personal injury, domestic relations, and bankruptcy law would have been censored and banned from the practice of law only a few short years ago. We can now see billboards for products that would not even have been mentioned in polite society when I was younger.
Do genealogists benefit from advertising? Yes, in the same way, that we all benefit from the availability of goods and services in the marketplace. If you want an example of the limits of the overall genealogical community, you should look at GenSoftReviews.com. This very useful and almost entirely unique website has been gathering user reviews of genealogy products for years.
Going back to the title of this post; what is real and what is hype? If you really want to know what is real, it will take some work. The reviews on GenSoftReviews.com are a good example of the difference between hype and reality. The part of genealogy that verges on fantasy and unreality is that fact that discontinued software programs such as Personal Ancestral File and The Master Genealogist continue to rank high with their fans despite their abandonment by their own developers. I have mentioned this fact many times over the years and I am still amazed when I see these old programs continue to receive high ratings.
One issue that bears discussion, perhaps in a different context, is the contrast between online websites or programs and those that are standalone and based on your computer. For example, the FamilySearch.org Family Tree is not considered a "program" in competition with the long list of desktop programs available. But, in fact, many people today choose to keep all of their genealogical data in an online program. If you want to see one chart comparing the popularity of online genealogy sites, you can see one on Geni.com, "Comparison of Internet Genealogy Sites." However, it is interesting that the list omits the huge websites FamilySearch.org, Findmypast.com, and Geneanet.org and includes both LinkedIn.com and Facebook.com as genealogy websites. Could this illustrate bias and prejudice in advertising?
Note: This old website from Geni.com was apparently put up back in 2010. I apparently missed that. But it is still interesting to note the omissions.