["Honesty is a good thing, but it is not profitable to its possessor unless it is kept under control." - Don Marquis (1878 - 1937)]
Advertising bolsters the UK’s economy, but makes its inhabitants poorer, less happy and less kind. It’s time to halt the spread
By Jon Alexander
As one of the authors of the recent Think of me as evil? report on the impact of advertising on social and cultural values, I’ve been frustrated in the past few weeks by the way we’ve got stuck on the question of whether advertising is evil, rather than getting into the deeper questions. Admittedly, I made my own bed to some extent, but let’s see if we can go beyond the headline.
So should we think of advertising as evil? No, despite the provocative name of our report, we shouldn’t – but I would propose that it is certainly out of control, and the resultant impact on social and cultural values is doing our society and our economy a great disservice.
I want to start by setting out the context for advertising, and looking back to where we have come from. Then I’ll offer a thought on how that context is changing, and what that means for advertising’s role in society. Finally, I’ll offer a suggestion or two for what we should do from here.
So, where are we coming from? What is the deal between advertising and society as it stands today?
The history of advertising
My first boss in advertising, noting both my geeky and my idealistic streaks early, sought to answer this for me with a book.
The book was The End of History, by Francis Fukuyama. For those not familiar with it, the hypothesis is that in the aftermath of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the contest between social systemsended. All that remained was to spread the word of a particularly fundamentalist strain of capitalism across the globe. Growth was good, and that meant more people buying more stuff more often. Advertising, then, which sought to sell more stuff to more people more often, was very much a “good thing”. It’s a sweeping description, but broadly speaking, that’s still the story we live by today, with our key measures of Consumer Confidence, with school competitions identifying the Young Consumer of the Year, and so on.
As a result, advertising has an access-all-areas pass in our lives, a pass of which the industry is taking full advantage. Organisations such as the Advertising Association exist to promote and protect “advertising freedoms”, and the big game is to push advertising ever further – from naming football stadiums to product placement on television, to schools, buildings exteriors and beyond. There are media companies that will carve your brands into trees and claim they are environmentally friendly for doing so. As Linda Kaplan Thaler, CEO of Kaplan Thaler Group in the US, says: “Ubiquity is the new exclusivity”.
A new shift
However, something is changing. As economist and commentator Will Hutton put it a couple of weeks ago at the launch of a report on the contribution of advertising to the UK economy, we can’t count economic contributions “with one eye closed”.
We are starting to understand that measuring the success of a nation by GDP is like measuring the success of a company by turnover alone. We are on the brink of developing true cost-benefit – or profit and loss – analyses of nations and of major industries. And when that happens, the advertising industry needs to be very careful, or else, to quote Hutton again, it will find itself in the dock.
Why is this? Well, you’ll have to read our report for a full answer, but the hypothesis we pose is rooted in the study of cultural values. This field of social psychology poses a model of human behaviour that says we are by nature at least as co-operative as we are competitive, as least as selfless as narrowly self-interested, and at least as driven by the desire for fulfilment and purpose as we are by the desire for status and success relative to our peers. In short, it poses that we are by nature at least as intrinsically (on our own terms) as extrinsically (relative to others) motivated in our lives.
Note the phrase “by nature”. Because when you introduce advertising into the mix, especially in its current ubiquity, the scales tip. A wide range of studies, which we review in more detail in our report, provide statistical evidence that higher levels of advertising lead to people working longer hours, saving less, and borrowing and buying more. Advertising in aggregate serves to normalise and validate the pursuit of status, of financial success, of sexual prowess, of self-interest as individual and societal goals, at the expense of fulfilment of purpose, of selflessness, and so on.
The impact of this is terrifying purely on economic grounds, with personal debt in the UK already over £1.5tn. That’s nearly double the current national debt, and it’s predicted to rise 50% by 2015. If advertising is adding to this debt burden then it is doing a great disservice to our economy. But the wider impacts are even more concerning.
When extrinsic motivations dominate, our likelihood to care about the problems of others diminishes – whether those others are people, animals, or the world as a whole. Where extrinsic motivations are prevalent, social equity is less, and negative environmental impact is greater.
And the impacts are not just on others. Individuals for whom extrinsic motivations are prevalent tend to be less happy, and are at significantly greater risk of mental illness – again unsurprising, given some of those numbers for personal debt, and again related to considerable costs to the UK economy.
It’s these findings that have led Oxfam, WWF, Action for Children, PIRC and many other leading NGOs to come together in the Common Cause project, which you can find out more about at valuesandframes.org. And it’s these findings that mean we have to look very hard at advertising.
And the question we have to ask now is this: for all the benefits that advertising brings, what are the costs, in the undermining of informal support networks, of ecosystem services and of personal mental and physical wellbeing? Is advertising – in its present form, and at its present level of ubiquity – contributing to economic growth, or to what former World Bank economist Herman Daly calls “uneconomic growth”, where the marginal costs of an increase in GDP exceed the marginal benefits? The evidence strongly suggests the latter.
What should we do?
The most important thing we can do is to stop advertising creeping further into our lives. As I have been careful to say, it is not necessarily that advertising is evil, but that, in its current state of ubiquity, its impact on our values is. Advertising is neither evil nor useless; but it is out of control. We must create space for our intrinsic motivations to be expressed and validated. We need to nurture and celebrate what’s great about culture: not strive to strengthen our already dominant role as consumers. And for that to happen, advertising has to give us some room to breathe.
This requires quantitative action, removing advertising from certain parts of our lives. Qualitative shifts, such as encouraging advertisers to endorse intrinsic values instead of extrinsic, are not the solution. Although campaigns such as John Lewis’ current Christmas effort are arguably more focused on the intrinsic than the extrinsic, they’re still associating the fulfilment of those motivations with the act of consumption; and while the little boy brought a tear to my eye as much as the next man, we need to be a little circumspect. There is no evidence to suggest that advertising that makes a surface appeal to intrinsic motivations is any better in the long run, and it may even undermine and trivialise the pursuit of intrinsic motivations.
Once we have found a way to halt the spread, we then need to go deep into the cost-benefit analysis and start to remove advertising from the places it should not be. At the point where advertising revenue becomes an uneconomic way to fund our society, we’ll need to find alternatives. If the great rebranding exercise of recent decades was the renaming of debt as credit, the next great task might well be to revisit the concept of tax in order to make it a more popular alternative. This cost-benefit debate is the debate that needs to be had, and this is where the research needs to be done.
The need to act now
But I and many others believe we already know enough to act in one area – by removing advertising from childhood. We know children cannot form the implicit social contracts that we adults do when we open a magazine and know advertising has subsidised its cover price. We know from recent work by Unicef that materialism is a major factor in why UK childhood wellbeing is the lowest in any OECD nation. We teach media literacy in schools in a vain attempt to equip children with some defence, even though we know that such classes operate at a conscious level while advertising operates at an subconscious level, so that the net effect is rather like building a fence to stop a mole. A ban on advertising to children could never be complete, but it would give us the chance to start our lives as something other than consumers, and it would set a very important tone.
As a new society emerges, the advertising industry would do well to withdraw itself from the arena of childhood, and to start understanding where else its borders should retract. It also needs to embrace research into the social and economic costs it incurs. If it does not, it will soon come to be seen as evil, whether it deserves it or not.
Jon Alexander worked as a planner at several leading London advertising agencies until 2010, and is co-author of the WWF/PIRC report ‘Think of me as evil? Opening the ethical debates in advertising’