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Against Advertising: The new and improved argument

Read Thursday, 18 Apr 2013

In the midst of a stellar advertising career, Greg Foyster came to the realisation that the work he was doing had grave consequences for the health of the planet. He became a walking contradiction, spending weekdays writing ads promoting petrol-guzzling V8 cars and weekends researching the dire impacts of climate change.

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Why do we need a new and improved argument against advertising?

The first reason is that we now know much more about the environmental impact of consumerism than we did in the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s or even in the 1990s.

The second? In the last five years in Australia, the advertising industry has taken on a new public image. Margaret Zabel, CEO of The Communications Council, has said that The Gruen Transfer has been ‘a great tool in promoting the industry to future new employees’.

Gruen and advertising as fun

Of course, The Gruen Transfer was never intended to be a cheerleader for consumerism. But from the very beginning it had little leeway to seriously question the role of advertising in society. Any strong criticism would have angered advertising agencies, leaving the show without willing commentators.

The Gruen Transfer also focuses on individual ads; a true critique of advertising needs to consider its overall impact on society, culture and the environment.

Advertising’s new public image troubles me. As a former employee of the industry, The Gruen Transfer reminds me of conversations I had within the walls of advertising agencies, where social issues – such as the link between fast food marketing and obesity – were acknowledged, and then dismissed with a clever joke. The message, never explicitly stated, was that advertising is just a bit of harmless fun, so we shouldn’t worry about it too much.


Indeed, advertising is fun. The chance to get paid to come up with zany ideas was what attracted me to the industry in the first place. So while my friends sat in university lecture halls learning about history or philosophy, I spent my years of higher education staring at jam jars and sauce bottles, trying to write taglines that captured the emotional essence of kitchen condiments.

Once I graduated, I spent about five years working full-time in the industry. But as I progressed in my career, I started researching climate change, and I learned that the root cause of many environmental issues was overconsumption in developed countries. To put it simply, people in rich countries like Australia are using up more resources than the planet can replenish.

Advertising and overconsumption

As someone who worked in the advertising industry, I felt personally responsible for promoting this overconsumption, and so I left my job.

Afterwards, I started researching my former profession, and I learned that the public has always had a healthy distrust of advertising. Throughout history, advertising has been criticised for a long list of social ills, including promoting materialism, reinforcing warped sexual stereotypes and cultivating discontent in order to sell more stuff.

So before we get to that new and improved argument against advertising, let’s look at the old arguments and see if they still apply.

Creating desires (and inventing body odour)

Advertising creates desires. This might seem obvious, but it’s an important point because people in the marketing industry sometimes argue that advertising only responds to desires consumers already have.

However, as the The Advertising Age Encyclopedia of Advertising explains, in the 1880s businesses began to recognise that advertising could create desires to fuel a new consumer economy. ‘People bought articles they did not know they wanted until advertising told them why they could not live without it.’

In 1958, economist John Kenneth Galbraith published The Affluent Society and argued that advertising’s ‘central function is to create desires – to bring into being wants that previously did not exist’.

An advertisement for Lynx deodorant. The company's global vice-president recently said that advertising created the market for deodorant as a product.
An advertisement for Lynx deodorant. The company’s global vice-president recently said that advertising created the market for deodorant as a product.

Let’s look at an example. In 2008, the global vice-president for Axe deodorant, which is marketed as Lynx in Australia, told The Times newspaper that in the UK before World War II people didn’t use deodorant; it took up-front advertising to educate consumers about unacceptable body odour. ‘The sense of paranoia created the market,’ he said.

The Unilever executive explained that one strategy for expansion was to make Asians self-conscious about their body odour. ‘Asia is a market we have never really cracked. They don’t think they smell …’

This isn’t to say that humans don’t smell, or that we don’t sometimes want something to mask our odour. The point here is that, through paranoia, the advertising is seeking to create a market where none existed before.

Here’s another example, this one from my girlfriend. You might have seen this ad on TV. It’s for a pad called Carefree Acti-Fresh that women are supposed to wear between periods. No, it’s not an incontinence pad. Its only purpose is so women feel and smell ‘fresh’ every single day of the month.

There are several products like this one, and they’re marketed at the general public, not at women who have health conditions. If they take off, they have the potential to create a new social norm. Eventually, it will seem normal for woman to wear pads all the time so that they can feel ‘fresh’, whatever that means. Again, a sense of paranoia is creating a market.

The culture of discontent

One way advertising creates new desires is to promote discontent with what you have. The best examples of this come from the late 1950s.

During World War II in the United States, industry expanded to supply the army, and factories exited the war with massively increased manufacturing capabilities. At first consumers absorbed the excess production by buying new appliances, but in the mid to late 1950s, industry began to worry that consumer demand would crash, leading to another economic depression.

This was known as the ‘crisis of distribution’ and the solution was to make hyper consumption a way of life. In 1955 US retail analyst Victor Lebow wrote in the Journal of Retailing:

‘Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfactions, our ego satisfactions, in consumption …We need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced, and discarded at an ever increasing pace.’

This is a simple but accurate description of the consumer economy since the 1950s.

One strategy for increasing consumption was ‘psychological obsolescence’, which involved making things appear out of date or untrendy after a few years. Cars, such as the GM Cadillac, developed stylistic quirks like tail fins, tempting consumers to replace their vehicles just to keep up with changing fashions. Advertising’s role in this was to promote the new products as superior to the old ones.

'Cars, such as the GM Cadillac, developed stylistic quirks like tail fins, tempting consumers to replace their vehicles just to keep up with changing fashions.'
‘Cars, such as the GM Cadillac, developed stylistic quirks like tail fins, tempting consumers to replace their vehicles just to keep up with changing fashions.’

Another strategy was to use social pressure to drive consumer demand. This is the ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ theory we’re all familiar with. But the concept is actually more powerful and pervasive than trying to outdo your neighbours. It applies to the whole of society – as everyone around you consumes more, you must do the same, not just to get ahead but simply to keep your current position.

For example, if you work in an office and all your co-workers start wearing expensive suits, pretty quickly your own clothes will look shabby in comparison. You’re forced to buy something new just to maintain your current status.

One way modern advertising increases social pressure to consume is through showing ‘aspirational’ images of affluent people enjoying luxury goods. This makes the public aim for higher and higher levels of material consumption.

Much of the aspirational imagery doesn’t actually relate to the product being sold. For example, an image of beautiful and scantily clad women on a yacht may be used to promote a car. Aspirational advertising always shows images of wealth above what the average person can afford – that’s why it’s aspirational. In response, consumers feel discontent with their more modest belongings. Aspirational advertising uses this discontentment to promote an attitude of endlessly striving for greater luxuries.

Further away from happiness

But, despite its alluring images of the good life, advertising actually takes you further away from true happiness.

It does this by promising happiness it can never truly deliver. Sut Jhally, professor of communication at the University of Massachusetts, writes that although each ad sells a different product, the consistent and explicit message of advertising is that ‘commodities will make us happy’.

But quality of life surveys show that, beyond a certain level of comfort, it is social values such as love, friendship, autonomy and self-esteem that are more important for lasting contentment, not material values, such as economic security and success.

In fact, psychologist Tim Kasser has drawn on decades of psychological research to show that ‘the more materialistic values are at the centre of our lives, the more our quality of life is diminished’.

And so we have what in marketing terms is called a ‘bait and switch’. Advertising lures us with images of our non-material desires and then tells us they can be fulfilled through material goods. We want love or romance. We get perfume. We want acceptance or status. We get branded clothing. We want autonomy or independence. We get a sports car.

As advertising does this, it draws us away from the things that really satisfy us, which are social values, and it gives us the things that can’t really satisfy us, material objects.

Car ads provide a good example of false promises. Again, we want independence or autonomy. We see an ad of a shiny new car on an open road, conveying a sense of freedom. We get the car… … but instead of the freedom of the open road, most of the time our experience is the opposite – we’re stuck in traffic.

Although a car might give us some autonomy and independence, it will never match up to the exaggerated images in the ad.

Coke and commercialising relationships

Another way advertising takes us further from true happiness is through commercialising social relationships.

This strategy is usually subtle, but a recent Coke campaign was shockingly explicit. In the lead-up to Christmas, the soft drink brand printed common first names on its labels, transforming a bottle of Coke into a bottle of ‘Chris’ or ‘Kylie’ or ‘Luke’. A television campaign then asked consumers to ‘Share a Coke’ with someone of that name, tapping into the affection we feel for close friends and family. The ads ended with the tagline ‘open happiness’.

Like so many ads, the underlying message of the ‘Share a Coke’ campaign was that material objects – in this case a fizzy brown liquid – could fulfil social desires.

Assimilating the counterculture

At this point we should talk about how the industry responds to such criticism. One way is by assimilating the counterculture.

For example, in the 1960s a countercultural movement began to attack Western society’s emphasis on materialism, and advertising was portrayed as a profession for conmen and ‘waste makers’. The industry responded by using the language and symbols of the counterculture to sell products.

Coca-Cola tapped into the peace and love movement by launching an ad with people of different races standing on a hill singing the tune ‘I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing’ while holding bottles of Coke.

Now, some people in the advertising industry argue that consumers are more marketing savvy these days, and they’re not so easily duped.

But it’s also possible to market to people sceptical of marketing. In the 1990s, Generation Xers were increasingly sceptical of overblown claims that a brand could deliver status or social acceptance. Sprite tapped into this anti-marketing sentiment with the tagline ‘Image is nothing. Thirst is everything’. The target audience loved it. According to a former president of The Coca-Cola Company, the brand grew at double-digit rates for the next three to five years.

Ecological destruction from overconsumption

So those are just some of the old arguments against advertising. Critics have pointed out that these arguments have their roots in the 1950s and they take a social or moral approach, making them vulnerable to accusations of subjectivity. But there is a more modern argument against advertising, and it’s based on evidence of ecological destruction, making it scientifically tested.

As you’ve probably heard before, things aren’t looking so good for planet Earth. By geological standards, humans have only been around for a short time, but we’ve already cultivated one quarter of the Earth’s land, dangerously exploited 80 per cent of world marine fish stocks, increased the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by over 30 per cent and multiplied the species extinction rate by as much as 1000 times. What’s more, the biggest and most damaging changes have occurred during the consumer boom of the last 60 years.

The root cause of ecological destruction from resource use isn’t overpopulation, but overconsumption. Overconsumption isn’t some vague term I made up – it refers to a level of consumption beyond what the Earth can sustainably replenish. For example, if everyone on the planet wanted to live the lifestyle of the average Australian we would need 3.7 Earths to supply resources.

Disproportionate resource use is also linked to climate change. The director of the Princeton Environmental Institute has calculated that the richest 500 million people in the world emit half the world’s fossil fuel carbon. Put another way, the world’s richest seven per cent of people are responsible for about 50 per cent of carbon dioxide emissions.

Can’t advertising be part of the solution? I would say yes, it can. What’s required is cultural change and, as experts in mass communication, advertising agencies could promote the transition to a genuinely sustainable culture.

The same logic applies to species extinction from habitat loss. Those people who consume the most place the greatest demand on natural resources, and therefore cause the greatest destruction.

It’s advertising that helps to create desires to drive this overconsumption. Advertising does this through commercialising social rituals, encouraging impulse buying and a culture of bargain hunting, plus the previously mentioned strategy of linking social desires with material objects. And so, far from being just harmless fun, advertising plays a crucial role in driving environmental destruction.

I’m not the only one who has come to this conclusion. Sut Jhally, professor of communication at the University of Massachusetts, has written: ‘Simply stated, our survival as a species is dependent upon minimizing [sic] the threat from advertising and the commercial culture that has spawned it.’

At this point, you might ask: Can’t advertising be part of the solution? I would say yes, it can. What’s required is cultural change and, as experts in mass communication, advertising agencies could promote the transition to a genuinely sustainable culture.

‘Most green marketing is … greenwash’

Environmentalists have drawn parallels between the transition we need to make over the next few decades and the rapid mobilisation of effort in the US and UK during World War II, when propaganda was used to promote growing home vegetable gardens. Advertising agencies could do the same thing today, aiding the transition to a local food economy.

The Australian advertising industry has also run social campaigns in the past, such as the Grim Reaper AIDS ad, and the recent black balloons ad for energy conservation.

However, the reality is that most green marketing at the moment is greenwash. For his book Greenwash, Australian author Guy Pearse tested the carbon footprints of 150 big brands, including Walmart, Virgin, Coca Cola, Unilever and Levis. He had this to say about the results: ‘Not one of these companies can yet say the emissions caused by their products each year is falling.’

The major problem with greenwash is it pretends to promote sustainability while actually reinforcing consumerism. Although ‘green’ products may require fewer resources or use less energy per item, they are still pushed onto consumers with the same breathless urgency. We’re changing the products, but we’re not changing buying habits or the economic system. What this means is that we’re heading for a future where shoppers buy an unsustainable amount of sustainable products, and ecosystems collapse despite our good intentions.

But it’s worse than that because, as I explained before, advertising works to assimilate the counterculture, and that’s what’s happening with the modern environment movement.

Greenwash copies the language and symbols of sustainability – the colour green, words like ‘eco’, phrases like ‘a better world’, images of trees and leaves – but it uses them to promote more consumerism, and in the process the symbols lose their credibility. People stop trusting them. And without trustworthy symbols, the environment movement can’t communicate as effectively as before, so it loses momentum.

This means that not only is advertising part of the problem, but, through greenwash, it’s subtly undermining the solution.

So that’s the new and improved argument against advertising. To help it stick in your mind I’ve decided to come out of retirement and write a snappy slogan that sums up everything I’ve just said.

Advertising. Same old tricks. All new consequences.

This is the edited transcript of Greg Foyster’s Lunchbox/Soapbox address, Against Advertising.

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