Advertising is everywhere – and greens need to take it seriously

This piece by Guy Shrubsole was originally published on Green Alliance’s Greener Living Blog.

What did you watch over Christmas? Sky’s new production of Treasure Island? A catch-up of season two of The Killing? Or… lots of adverts?

Whatever you watched, it’s very likely that you got treated to a high volume of advertisements. The average Briton is exposed to 250 TV commercials every week[1], and that’s just broadcast ads. Environmental campaigners and behaviour-change analysts rightly focus much of their attention on influencing editorial agendas – getting a cause into the news or ensuring a documentary about an issue is accurate. But to keep on ignoring the commercial advertising that surrounds such editorial agendas (and thanks to product placement, increasingly pervades them) would be a big mistake.

Last October, PIRC and WWF-UK published a report, Think Of Me As Evil? Opening the ethical debates in advertising, with the intention of sparking a debate about the social and environmental impacts of advertising on our society. We’ve been pleasantly surprised by the discussions it’s kicked off, both within the advertising industry and amongst NGOs. But to date, we’ve received few responses from those working on environmental behaviour-change policy.

A comparison with smoking and junk food

This is worrying. The past decade has seen government and industry accept the need for strict restraints on the advertising of tobacco and of junk food to children – clear acknowledgements of the role adverts play in normalising unhealthy behaviours. More recently, childrens’ charities and faith groups have won the ear of the Prime Minister in their campaigns against marketing that prematurely sexualises and commercialises childhood. Yet the environmental movement has shown strikingly little interest in advertising’s contribution to unsustainable patterns of consumption.

In fairness, perhaps this is because matters of sustainability pose a more fundamental challenge to the continuation of advertising in its present form than any of the other social problems listed here. It would be one thing to go after adverts for particularly high-carbon products, like short-haul flights or gas-guzzling cars. But all consumption has a carbon footprint, and as we review in our report, there is substantive evidence to show advertising is increasing levels of aggregate consumption, not just a particular brand’s market share. The celebrated economist JK Galbraith, in his 1958 book The Affluent Society, called this the ‘dependence effect’: “As a society becomes increasingly affluent, wants are increasingly created by the process by which they are satisfied… producers may proceed actively to create wants through advertising and salesmanship.”

Since Galbraith wrote those words, advertising expenditure in the UK has continued to increase – from £63 per capita in 1960 to £178 per capita by 1997.[2] What’s more, various statistical studies have suggested the existence of a work-spend cycle, whereby advertising heightens expectations about an acceptable material standard of living – leading people to work longer hours to attain a disposable income in order to meet those expectations[3]. The evidence for these impacts is incomplete: but the questions they raise go to the heart of what makes a sustainable economy, and ought to be given far greater attention.

Changing the ‘choice architecture’

Advertising should also be of key importance to those wishing to better design the ‘choice architecture’ within which we make decisions. Few of us turn on the telly with the express intention of watching adverts, but that shouldn’t blind us to their impact. As advertisers themselves well know, most adverts are processed subconsciously. You don’t need to believe all the arguments Vance Packard made in his classic work The Hidden Persuaders to think this: in fact, you need only turn to the research of advertising agencies themselves.

As brand consultants Wendy Gordon and Peter Langmaid have written, “There is irrefutable proof of the presence in the consumer’s mind of advertising messages… that are inaccessible to conscious recall.” The fact that this is now widely, if quietly, accepted amongst advertisers raises deep questions about how far commercial influence permeates our lives, and subtly instils unsustainable behaviours.

Consumerist values

Lastly – but perhaps most profoundly – is our concern that advertising is pushingcultural values in a direction directly counter to that required for a sustainable, low-carbon transition. It’s not just that adverts promote the consumption of ever-more stuff, but that the manner in which they do so risks undermining societal concern for bigger social and environmental issues. Extensive social psychology research has shown that people who are primed to hold extrinsic values – ones that prize fame, materialism, influence over others – are less likely to hold opposing intrinsic values: that is, concern for others, social justice and nature.

Now, it’s fair to say that not all adverts are crassly materialistic. John Lewis’ Christmas ad may have alienated thousands of Smiths fans, but the message at its heart was fairly intrinsic. You can hardly say that of Littlewoods’ choice festive offering: not only did it try to encourage kids to pester their parents for the latest consumer gadgets, but it suggested audiences should get into debt to afford them. Given the number of complaints the Littlewoods advert received, perhaps the tide is turning against such blatant appeals. Certainly, all businesses with a genuine concern about sustainability should start considering their advertising campaigns for the values they promote, just as closely as they pay attention to more traditional aspects of CSR.

Environmentalists need to take advertising seriously

But those working in the fields of environmental policy and behaviour change should also be very concerned. Advertising is now everywhere: influencing how much we consume, affecting our values, pervading our media, constraining our choices. Health groups, anti-smoking campaigners and childrens’ charities have all recognised the importance of advertising to their causes and taken action over the past decade. Why is it that environmentalists have so far failed to do the same?

[1] Erik Du Plessis, The Advertised Mind, London:Kogan Page, 2005, p.118.

[2] S. Fraser & D. Paton, ‘Does advertising increase labour supply? Time series evidence from the UK’, Applied Economics, 35, 2003, pp. 1357–68.

[3] Some of these studies are reviewed in our report, pp.18-22.

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