The cultural impact of advertising

For the last few weeks I’ve been carrying around a report entitled The Advertising Effect, from the Compass think tank. I’ve been meaning to write about it and haven’t got round to it. I’ve been reminded of it this week the publication of a new report from WWF and the Public Interest Research Centre, Think of me as Evil? (George Monbiot writes about it here) The report takes its title from a quote from a notable advertiser who remarked that he “would rather be thought of as evil than useless,” and it’s an analysis of how advertising impacts culture.

Obviously advertising is a useful thing to the businesses that use it, and that’s all of them if they expect to have any customers. It’s a means of informing choice, and it’s vital to new entrants in any market. When it comes to society however, and the big picture effects of advertising in general, it’s not pretty. The report’s conclusion is that advertising promotes values that are directly opposed to human wellbeing, environmental sustainability and a fair society. It ought to be considered a detrimental influence, and regulated accordingly.

That’s not how advertisers see it of course. As far as they’re concerned, they simply redistribute consumption, directing spending from this brand to that one. They promote choice, and simply reflect existing cultural values. In reality, advertising doesn’t just expand market share, it expands the size of the market. “It seems,” says the report, “that advertising may be encouraging society to save less, borrow more, work harder and consume greater quantities of material goods.”

Advertising also impact values. While it reflects society to a certain degree, it also has the effect of ‘normalising’ values or behaviours. With the average American exposed to between 500 and 1,000 commercial messages a day, it wields considerable power over what we consider normal. An example that came to mind for me was the idea of cosmetics for men. Only a few years ago, the idea that men might want to use moisturisers would have been laughable to most British men. A sustained advertising campaign from Nivea later, including prominent billboards at football stadiums, and there’s nothing unusual at all about men using hand cream.

Hand cream is benign stuff, and it’s not the products that are the problem here, but the values behind the ads. Research by Frederick Grouzet and Tim Kasser shows how advertising tends to promote ‘extrinsic’ values rather than ‘intrinsic’ values. The former are those that rely on external factors for validation – the opinions and admiration of others. The latter meanwhile, are rewarding in themselves, such as a sense of family belonging, rewarding work, or self-development.

This matters because “placing greater importance on extrinsic values is associated with higher levels of prejudice, less concern about the environment… and weak (or absent) concern about human rights.” That’s bad for society, but it’s not great for the individual concerned either: “People who attach greater importance to extrinsic values are also likely to report lower levels of personal wellbeing.”

Finally, advertising might not even promote choice after all. By subtly manipulating its audience, it may in fact stifle choice. Much advertising is subliminal, drip-feed, all about creating positive associations without prompting conscious thought. If we consciously sat down and decided to objectively analyse whether we preferred Coke or Pepsi, we’d probably conclude that we didn’t care and that it doesn’t matter. An active choice, in this instance, is bad for the brand. Instead, advertising “operates darkly, beyond the light of consciousness”, in the words of Agnes Nairn and Cordelia Fine. “Intuitive brand judgments are made instantaneously and with little or no apparent conscious effort on the part of consumers” says one ad agency.  “Intuition is now well accepted as a powerful driver of brand choice and brand affiliation.”

So if advertising circumvents our thought processes and subtly encourages further debt, selfishness, and a cavalier attitude to the environment, then maybe we do need to think of it as evil. Or if that seems a little dramatic, at least we ought to be more aware of advertising, more clear about where the limits lie. And we certainly need more public debate about the ethics of advertising, which is ultimately what this report is calling for.

I don’t want to pick on advertisers themselves, whether that’s the agencies or the businesses. I’ve written my share of marketing copy. The problem is the cumulative effect of advertising – another case of reaping as a society what we did not choose as individuals. So we can’t do away with advertising, but we can examine it, ask more questions, regulate it better, and minimise its harmful effects on society.

How? That’s another post.


26 Comments on “The cultural impact of advertising”

  1. Sugel October 27, 2011 at 6:22 am #

    The British Social Attitudes survey for example shows a sharp fall over this period in public support for policies which redistribute wealth and opportunity 2 ..This shift has been reinforced by advertising and the media. They should also come together to challenge forces particularly the advertising industry which make us insecure and selfish..Ed Miliband appears to understands this need.

  2. Marcus Simmons October 27, 2011 at 11:13 am #

    Thanks for a great article – really helps to define sharply some of the issues in this area, where things normally seem nebulous. I would very much welcome a follow-up article on how to tackle this.

  3. Vlad June 12, 2013 at 1:49 pm #

    Wow, great post Jeremy. I am writing a textbook for year 10 economics students in Australia as all of the others in the market are promoting right-wing capitalist ideals that are in my opinion having catastrophic effects on our society and planet. I wish to explore topics such as sustainability, consumerism, military-industrial complex and many others that are not considered fit for mainstream textbooks. I intend to self-publish the book and it is not likely to generate any income but it is a labour of love. I would love to use articles or extracts of them from this site in the book if you are happy with the idea. I know it’s listed under CC for commercial use but I thought I’d ask anyway.

    Keep up the good work, I look forward to reading your future posts.


    • Jeremy June 12, 2013 at 3:15 pm #

      An important project – best of luck with it. And of course, please use anything you need!

    • ABHISHEK PAUL April 15, 2017 at 5:07 pm #

      will glad to read ur textbook once it gets published.

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