“It’s just my luck. I talk to a nice girl, seem to hit it off, and she turns out just to be an ad” . The residents of South Park, Colorado, are renowned for their hyperbole; but this glum announcement by a nine-year-old cartoon character seems uncomfortably poignant. Adverts are no longer just broad-brush mass campaigns. Now they learn about us, they follow us from screen-to-screen, and some of them – as South Park satirises – have even “taken on human form” . Social media influencers, celebrity product placement, and sponsored news content seamlessly weave advertising into our cultural output, our information sources, and even our education system . Meanwhile traditional mediums of advertising are becoming ever more saturated. The average UK citizen saw 45 television ads every day in 2015, whilst JCDecaux boasts that one billion British eyeballs lock onto its digital out-of-home advertising every week [3, 4].
Mass advertising has become so accepted into our culture, it is easy to forget that it is a relatively recent phenomenon, born out of the need to strengthen Western economies following World War Two. In America, economist JK Galbraith identified advertising as the way firms manufactured new wants, once essential needs had been met . More ominously, advertising was also a hidden Cold War weapon. It turned the hearts and minds of Western citizens away from communism with the alluring promise of attaining eternal happiness through material goods . Today, the ideology of consumerism seems utterly dominant in developed societies. “Have more, be more!” the ads cajole us from every possible space; the message is hard to escape.
Yet as the impacts of climate change and biodiversity loss continue to mount, it is clear that our pursuit of more is threatening our future as a species. Human activities are rapidly approaching, and in some cases exceeding, the finite biophysical limits of our planet . A growing chorus of citizens, scientists, and economists argue that we must redesign our economy to operate within a sustainable scale . This means that economic activities, especially in the developed world, must be reduced in order to halt the depletion of natural stocks and allow ecosystems to recover and renew for future generations. To achieve this, the heady consumption of the developed world cannot remain at present levels .
Amidst the urgency of this situation, advertising isn’t just incompatible with sustainable scale; it’s a serious obstacle. In fashion, for example, advertising has enabled the number of annual seasons to increase from two to fifty, causing global clothing production to double since 2000 . Not only is apparel manufacture hugely resource-intensive, but the UK also discards over 300,000 tonnes of clothing annually [11, 12]. The throwaway phenomenon is not just confined to fashion. From mobile phones to furniture, advertising convinces us that our stuff is obsolescent ahead of its time. And so we buy more, and chuck more, driving a relentless one-way flood of resources from nature to high street to landfill.
But, you ask, wouldn’t having less stuff make us less happy? In fact, numerous psychological studies have shown the opposite: materialism is strongly associated with lower wellbeing . Adverts are therefore bombarding us with a false creed, locking us into patterns of overconsumption that bring only personal dissatisfaction and planetary destruction. As economist Tim Jackson memorably articulated, we are in an ‘iron cage of consumerism’ . To get out of it, we need to radically transform our institutions, norms, and values – and that means doing something about the ads.
It has not escaped marketers that sustainability is now the buzzword-du-jour. “You can still have the thing,” the ads now tell us, “but buy the eco-organic-green thing instead.” Yet more products, “green” or not, cannot be the solution to overconsumption . Cities such as São Paulo, Paris, and Tehran have taken more radical steps to limit billboard advertising . Grenoble has replaced all commercial street ads with trees and community noticeboards . And freely-available ad-blockers are now helping us to reassert the neutrality of our digital space. But more drastic measures are needed and are possible.
Imagine reading a beautiful poem on the tube in the morning instead of vacantly staring at the latest foam mattress ad. Imagine contemplating an intriguing piece of art as you wait for the bus. Imagine not being constantly reminded of what you lack, and instead inspired by the wonders of life that exist beyond shallow consumerism. Together, as citizens not consumers, this is a world that we can make happen. In South Park, the AI ads are eventually destroyed, but not before having wreaked havoc and destruction upon society. We cannot afford to let it get that far; our planet is already suffocating under all our stuff. The ads are a big problem. It’s time to come together and take them down.
- South Park Season 19, Episode 8, Sponsored Content. 2015. Comedy Central. 18 November.
- Raine, G. 2007. Commercial activities in primary schools: a quantitative study. Oxford Review of Education. 33(2), pp.211–231.
- Statista 2018. Number of television advertisements seen daily per individual in the United Kingdom (UK) from 2008 to 2015. [Online]. [Accessed 14 November 2017]. Available from: https://www.statista.com/statistics/275546/number-of-tv-ads-seen-daily-in-the-united-kingdom-uk/.
- JCDecaux 2018. Digital Out-of-Home: The Quarterly Report. Scale, Reach and Viewed Impressions. [Online]. [Accessed 14 November 2017]. Available from: https://www.jcdecaux.co.uk/insight-and-nickable-slides/digital-report-september-2018.
- Galbraith, J.K. 1958. The Affluent Society. London: Hamish Hamilton Ltd.
- Ewen, S. 1976. Captains of Consciousness: Advertising and the Social Roots of the Consumer Culture. New York: McGraw-Hill.
- Steffen, W., Richardson, K., Rockstrom, J., Cornell, S.E., Fetzer, I., Bennett, E.M., Biggs, R., Carpenter, S.R., de Vries, W., de Wit, C.A., Folke, C., Gerten, D., Heinke, J., Mace, G.M., Persson, L.M., Ramanathan, V., Reyers, B. and Sorlin, S. 2015. Planetary boundaries: Guiding human development on a changing planet. Science. 347(6223), p.736.
- O’Neill, D. et al. 16 September 2018. The EU needs a stability and wellbeing pact, not more growth. The Guardian. [Online]. [Accessed 13 November 2018]. Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2018/sep/16/the-eu-needs-a-stability-and-wellbeing-pact-not-more-growth.
- Hoekstra, A.Y. and Wiedmann, T.O. 2014. Humanity’s unsustainable environmental footprint. Science. 344(6188), pp.1114–1117.
- Greenpeace 2016. Timeout for Fast Fashion. [Online]. [Accessed 14 November 2018]. Available from: https://www.greenpeace.org/archive-international/Global/international/briefings/toxics/2016/Fact-Sheet-Timeout-for-fast-fashion.pdf
- Ellen MacArthur Foundation 2017. A New Textiles Economy: Redesigning Fashion’s Future. [Online]. [Accessed 14 November 2017]. Available from: https://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/publications/a-new-textiles-economy-redesigning-fashions-future
- WRAP 2016. Why Love Your Clothes? Love Your Clothes. [Online]. [Accessed 13 November 2018]. Available from: https://www.loveyourclothes.org.uk/about/why-love-your-clothes.
- Dittmar, H., Bond, R., Hurst, M. and Kasser, T. 2014. The relationship between materialism and personal well-being: A meta-analysis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 107(5), pp.879–924.
- Jackson, T. 2017. Prosperity Without Growth: Foundations for the Economy of Tomorrow 2nd Edition. London and New York: Routledge.
- Sustainable Brands 2017. Study: Effectively Marketing Sustainable Goods Could Represent $1T Market Opportunity. sustainablebrands.com. [Online]. [Accessed 13 November 2018]. Available from: http://www.sustainablebrands.com/news_and_views/stakeholder_trends_insights/sustainable_brands/study_effectively_marketing_sustainabl.
- Mahdawi, A. 12 August 2015. Can cities kick ads? Inside the global movement to ban urban billboards. The Guardian. [Online]. [Accessed 13 November 2018]. Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2015/aug/11/can-cities-kick-ads-ban-urban-billboards.
- Bradley, S. 24 August 2017. How Geneva could join the anti-billboard movement. SWI. [Online]. [Accessed 14 January 2019]. Available from: https://www.swissinfo.ch/eng/directdemocracy/geneva-zéro-pub-_how-geneva-could-join-anti-billboard-movement/43459942