Think Of Me As Evil?: advertisers, ethics, and social engineering

This piece originally appeared on openDemocracy.

“The truth is that marketing raises enormous ethical questions every day – at least it does if you’re doing it right.” So wrote Rory Sutherland, former President of the British Institute of Practitioners in Advertising, in a provocative article  last year entitled We can’t run away from the ethical debates in marketing.

We certainly can’t – and that’s why the Welsh-based Public Interest Research Centre (the organisation I work for) and WWF-UK  this week published a new report  examining some of these crucial ethical questions. Think Of Me As Evil? Opening the ethical debates in advertising scrutinises the impacts of advertising on consumption, on freedom of choice, and on cultural values.

In each case, we find there is much cause for concern. There is compelling evidence that advertising is exacerbating the ecological crisis by boosting consumption of energy and resources; that it influences our values and identities in ways that undermine social and environmental concern; and that it is eroding wellbeing and freedom of choice.

It was the economist JK Galbraith  who first argued  advertising created wants, rather than satisfying needs:

“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.”

If advertising is artificially inflating consumption, then it is not only contributing to climate change and resource depletion – it is doing so needlessly, creating dissatisfaction that it then aims to salve through retail therapy.

Advertisers generally tend to dismiss such arguments: advertising simply redistributes consumption between brands, they claim, rather than growing the market. But others are more candid. Guy Murphy, Global Strategy Director at agency JWT, has written that “… it is simply not true to say that advertising does not influence market size.” A spread of statistical studies agree with him – finding that, in many cases, an economy’s aggregate consumption has risen in response to an increase in advertising expenditure. Other studies suggest advertising encourages people to save less, borrow more, and work longer hours to satisfy the increased material aspirations instilled in them. It would be more honest, Murphy states, for advertisers to regard themselves “as trying to manipulate culture: being social engineers, not brand managers.”

Indeed, advertising’s powers of manipulation are now formidable. We might like to consider ourselves immune, too savvy to get hooked. But the sheer pervasiveness of modern advertising – and its increasingly subtle nature – militate strongly against that. Over fifty years ago, the journalist Vance Packard blew the whistle on this in his classic work The Hidden Persuaders, in which he wrote:

“Large-scale efforts are being made, often with impressive success, to channel our unthinking habits, our purchasing decisions, and our thought processes by the use of insights gleaned from psychiatry and the social sciences…”

At the time, Madison Avenues ‘mad men’ violently rejected Packard’s arguments. But today, they are increasingly embraced by brand consultants themselves. The founders of ad agency Acacia Avenue, Wendy Gordon and Peter Langmaid, argue that “there is irrefutable proof of the presence in the consumer’s mind of advertising messages… that are inaccessible to conscious recall.” Smart agencies, seeking to attain greater ‘cut-through’ for their clients’ products in ever-more competitive marketplaces, are always looking for new ways to influence consumers. Examples abound: for example, Robin Wight, President of communications company Engine, recently launched an initiative calling for the standard adoption of brain scanning in development research. (The website detailing his initiative has since been taken down, following industry concerns that it would damage reputations.) RealEyes, a data collection company, specialises in eye-scanning technology that allows advertisers to gauge what parts of an advert is most looked at by passers-by.

Meanwhile, advertising proliferates: on billboards, on TV screens, online. One marketing textbook estimates the average American is exposed to 500-1000 ads a day; Britons are unlikely to be far behind. Advertisers claim their work helps promote freedom of choice, but we are no longer free to choose not to be advertised at. Yet this appears to be an issue overlooked by civil liberties organisations to date.

Most fundamentally of all is the impact advertising may be having on our values. Extensive research by social psychologists has shown that a particular set of ‘intrinsic’ values – such as concern for community, equality and unity with nature – underpin people’s support for tackling social and environmental challenges. Opposing, ‘extrinsic’ values – concern for social status, wealth, personal achievement – serve to undermine such responses. Emphasising one set of values strengthens the degree to which a person holds them and de-emphasises opposing values. The great majority of adverts, in their appeals to social status, conspicuous consumption and the importance of material possessions, appeal to extrinsic values – hence eroding those cultural values that will drive a transition to a sustainable society. Appeals to intrinsic values simply for the purposes of selling products may also generate problems of their own.

Think Of Me As Evil? is not categorical in its claims about these problems and recognises that in some areas more research is needed. But there is sufficient evidence to put the ball firmly in the advertising industry’s court and require them to prove their impact is in fact benign. Civil society organisations, meanwhile – from environmental groups to civil liberties campaigners – should make common cause in holding the industry to account. It’s to Sutherland’s credit that he appears to be up for such a debate. As he wrote in his article: “[A]s marketers, we should once again engage in ethical discussion – and be ready to lose the argument to the public once in a while.”

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