As the days remaining until Christmas dwindle, the pressure to purchase more consumer goods is palpable on the high street. With the average UK consumer already exposed to 500-1,000 adverts per day, Christmas advertising only furthers the message that we must purchase gifts to show our love to friends and family.
However, according to a report by WWF-UK and the Public Interest Research Centre (PIRC), that kind of advertising not only empties our wallets, but also has a significant effect both on the decisions we make and on how we choose to spend our time.
‘[There exists] a work-spend cycle whereby advertising heightens the expectations about the acceptable material standard of living, leading people to work longer hours in order to attain a disposable income that allows them to meet those expectations,’ the report explains.
Consumption and status
Central to the report is the distinction between extrinsic and intrinsic values. Extrinsic values are those ‘contingent upon the perceptions of others,’ such as social status, admiration of material things, and power. Intrinsic values, conversely, are those that are ‘more inherently rewarding to pursue,’ such as spending time with friends and family, building community, and developing personal goals and passions.
Advertising, according the report, appeals almost entirely to extrinsic values.
‘We are constantly being bombarded with appeals to extrinsic values from advertising, media, celebrity culture,’ says the report’s co-author Guy Shrubsole, who is the director of PIRC. ‘Currently, society is in favour of these values, which are leading us to be more materialistic, more individualistic and less concerned about environmental and social issues.’
This reduced concern for environmental issues can largely be attributed to television, says the report. A study that examined the attitudes of two sets of school children - one that were exposed to TV each day as part of school curriculum, and another group that wasn’t - showed that the children who watched TV held extrinsic values to be far more important.
‘There is good evidence for a correlation between television viewing and a sense of apathy regarding environmental issues,’ says the report. ‘Heavier television viewing is correlated with increased prevalence of extrinsic values, and extrinsic values are negatively correlated with environmental concern.’
Once a citizen, now a consumer
Shrubsole knows that it is unlikely that people will lose their material impulses completely, but he does contend that there was a time when consuming was not the main role of citizens.
By searching the Google Books archives, Shrubsole noted that usage of the word ‘consumer’ began to eclipse the word ‘citizen’ sometime in the mid 1970s.
‘Advertising isn’t the only aspect of consumer culture and consumer culture isn’t the whole of human culture,’ Shrubsole says. ‘But, you can look back at history and find cultures that are much more intrinsically focused. I would say that Britain and the US just 30 or 40 years ago would have been societies that were much more focused on intrinsic values.’
Kalle Lasn, the founder and editor in chief of Adbusters magazine, agrees. Lasn started Adbusters over 20 years ago as a critique of consumer culture. Last summer when the publication called for an organised struggle against capitalism - which they coined Occupy Wall Street - the movement quickly swept cities across the globe.
‘If you look at the history of advertising it started off 100 years as a tiny little part of our economic system,’ Lasn says. ‘But since then advertising has started to create brands, it’s started to weave its way into our emotional lives and it has become emotionally corrosive. It’s a powerful psychological force and nobody ever talks about it too much - it’s like the shadow of capitalism.’
Occupy against advertising!
Lasn agrees that this powerful force is directly linked to our destruction of the environment.
‘Advertising has tripled the level of our consumption and it is now a very devastating ecological force - climate change is driven by advertising,’ Lasn said. ‘We have to ask ourselves: Do we really need a one trillion dollar per-year ad industry to tell us to consume more? It doesn’t make any sense - we already consume enough.’
Occupy Wall Street has, in Lasn’s opinion, done ‘a hell of a lot of good’ by capturing the hearts and minds of the middle class and by exposing the massive inequality of the capitalist system. He envisions a similar movement to tackle advertising.
‘Instead of arguing about how much it affects us, we should start dismantling the advertising industry,’ Lasn says. ‘We need anti-ads, we need subvertisments, we need to occupy Madison Avenue. We should go after these people - we need to occupy advertising.’
Opt out advertising
Advocates of the advertising sector argue that far from being ill-intended, advertising serves as a necessary communication channel for companies to disperse information.
Despite the report’s critical tone, Shrubsole says that there are indeed forms of advertising - such as that done by NGOs or charities - that appeal to intrinsic, rather than extrinsic values and convey necessary information. However, he says that even those can veer off-message sometimes.
‘There’s no communication that’s value-free and we would certainly hold to account NGOs and charities in their communication as much as we do commercial advertisements,’ Shrubsole says. ‘If we can see an ad that’s coming out from an NGO that is also promoting materialistic values - even if it thinks it’s doing that towards a "light green" or green-consumer based goal - we’re definitely critical of that.’
While an advert-free world is unlikely, the report outlines ways that the negative effects of omnipresent advertising can be reduced. Recently, cities such as Paris, Sao Paolo as well as the US states of Hawaii, Alaska, Maine and Vermont have either banned or reduced the presence of billboards. In addition, ‘opt-out’ options are becoming more prevalent online, with websites like Spotify offering subscription based, ad-free versions.
‘To me one of the great developments of the last few years was what Sao Paolo did - here is a whole city that purified itself from ads,' Lasn says. 'To me, that was the beginning of the mental environmental movement.'
Lasn hopes that such a movement will be adopted by the Occupy movement and that more people will begin to realise that advertising affects our mental well-beling.
‘Thirty years ago we realised that there was a connection between physical pollution and your own physical health. Now there’s a real connection between advertising and our own mental health.’
|HOW TO MAKE A DIFFERENCE
Subvertising: billboard ads for the public interest
As public spaces become blighted by the £18 billion global outdoors advertising industry, community groups are fighting back to reclaim both ad-free areas or use billboards in a socially beneficial way
Seeking status: embracing our selfish motives for buying green
The bulk of our motives for buying green are selfish, say psychologists. So would appealing to social positioning help shift behaviours better than moralising?
Erik Assadourian: our society needs some serious cultural engineering
The editor of the influential Worldwatch 'State of the World' report on the best ways to transform cultures from consumerism to sustainability
Occupy protests: a four step guide to bypassing high-street banks
You've read about the Occupy Wall Street and London protests and you know about corporate greed (and the banking bail-out) but how can you do something about it?
Don't buy it - hire it: the real green consumer
It's an unfashionable idea, but would a return to hiring products and services rather than buying them help us reduce our ecological footprint and turn businesses green?