Black Friday is hyped as the most frenzied day in the year for rampant consumerism.
The term began in Philadelphia in the United States as slang for the madly busy shopping day after Thanksgiving, with bus drivers calling it that because of the traffic chaos.
Today, Black Friday could just as easily refer to the day’s carbon footprint driven by the spree of overconsumption, fuelled in part by countless ads encouraging people to go shopping.
Yet, in the battle over the larger climate emergency, despite the billions spent yearly encouraging people to consume on Black Friday and during the rest of the year, advertising has largely avoided responsibility or blame.
Now evidence is building up about advertising’s role in environmental damage, and that is starting to change. There are, of course, precedents.
Advertising has been called to task before. The battle to end cigarette advertising was bitterly contested, fought over many years, and ultimately won against strong industry opposition.
The battle mattered because smoking kills, ruins lives, and passes huge costs onto public health systems. The days when doctors appeared in adverts to endorse cigarettes are now so long-gone, and attitudes so changed, that it is almost hard to believe that such ads ever existed.
But while we no longer see smiling doctors, cigarette in hand, encouraging us to smoke, there are still many, many adverts that encourage the whole economy to smoke in a different way, by promoting high carbon lifestyles.
Why is advertising not held accountable for pushing values, lifestyles, products, services, and experiences that damage lives, pass on costs to the general public, and fuel the climate and ecological emergency? What should be done about them?
Learning from history, we can anticipate a backlash just for asking these questions.
Surely, some might argue, it is consumption of the products, not the adverts themselves, that do the damage if, for example, we’re talking about eating red meat or, interestingly, smoking tobacco again, driving SUVs or taking flights?
Isn’t there a reason that advertising has barely featured in the climate debate? What is the evidence that adverts cause harm? The answer to this last question, as it turns out, is quite a lot.
We looked at what the scientific research has had to say about the links between advertising and environmental damage and found a body of evidence that highlights connections at both a systemic level and at the level of individual, example products.
Summarised in our new report, Advertising’s role in climate and ecological degradation, this is what the science has to say.
Materialism reflects the priority that individuals place on values and goals to be wealthy, to have many possessions, and to obtain the status and appealing image that often come with those things.
One of the most important factors leading people to prioritize such aims is “social modeling,” or exposure to messages in their environment which suggest that happiness and a good life depend upon wealth and consumption.
This is where advertising plays a key role, constantly reinforcing these notions.
We found many studies showing that materialism levels are positively correlated (that is, strongly linked) with both how much people view television and their exposure to advertising.
Experiments have also shown that when research participants are briefly exposed to the types of messages seen in advertisements (as opposed to a neutral message), they respond by increasing the priority that they place on materialistic values and goals.
These effects have been reported across a range of age groups and in various nations around the world.
Research shows that when people “buy into” the materialistic values and goals encouraged by advertising, they report lower levels of personal well-being, experience conflictual interpersonal relations, engage in fewer pro-social behaviours, and have detrimental academic and work outcomes.
Crucially for this argument, many empirical studies also show that the more that people prioritize materialistic values and goals, the less they espouse positive attitudes about the environment and the more likely they are to engage in unsustainable behaviours.
Consumer culture has created a substantial financial infrastructure that allows and encourages people to go into debt in order to pay for a huge range of products, services, and experiences.
But another way to buy such things is to work more hours in order to earn more money.
This is commonly referred to as the ‘work and spend cycle.’ And, the available evidence shows that advertising is associated with increases in people’s work hours.
It appears to do this by leading people to place higher value on the consumption of what they see advertised and lower value on having more time available for non-work activities – such as time playing sports, or with children or chatting with friends and family.
Said differently, in the presence of a large volume of advertising, many people come to want to work, shop, and consume relatively more than to rest, recreate, and relate with others.
Research shows that the adoption of the work and spend cycle leads to two dynamics that contribute to climate and ecological impacts: the scale and composition effects.
The scale effect describes the fact that when individuals work more hours, they earn more money that they then spend on consumption; scaled up, many people working many hours leads to high levels of overall economic and ecologically-damaging activity.
The composition effect describes the fact that when people work long hours, they have less time to engage in ecologically-sustainable activities that are relatively time intensive, like riding one’s bicycle instead of driving one’s car or growing one’s food instead of buying it pre-packaged at the grocery store.
Clearly these two explanations are not mutually exclusive, and both contribute to environmental damage.
In addition to encouraging materialism and the work and spend cycle, advertising also plays a role in promoting the consumption of especially environmentally-damaging goods.
Beef is one product whose consumption has been shown to go up in response to advertising; studies in the USA, Canada, UK, Australia, and South Korea report that spending on advertising to promote beef as a product is linked to higher consumption levels.
The production of beef has also been documented as causing unsustainable water usage, destruction of habitat-providing and carbon-capturing forests, and the emission of high levels of greenhouse gases.
Similarly, scientific studies also support the conclusion that people are more likely to smoke tobacco products when they are exposed to its advertising.
And while the physical health risks of smoking tobacco are well-known, less so are the many climate and ecological risks linked to what is, in its own right, a major, global agricultural commodity.
Each stage in the life cycle of a cigarette, from growing the tobacco to manufacturing, smoking, and disposing of the cigarette, is associated with specific climate and ecological risks: deforestation, chemical pollution of water and soil, CO2 and other noxious emissions, and on and on.
Two preliminary studies also support the idea that the advertising industry contributes to climate and ecological degradation because it encourages the consumption of SUVs and of leisure airline flights.
For example, advertising researchers recently calculated the carbon cost of an award-winning campaign from 2015-2017 by auto-maker Audi.
They did so by combining information on the increase in Audi sales attributed to the new campaign (almost 133,000 autos) with life cycle assessments of the emissions of the autos that were sold.
Their best estimate is that the ad campaign contributed to over 5 million tons of carbon emitted.
Where aviation is concerned, in a survey study of around 1,000 German adults, participants reported how much they had seen online adverts and social media posts encouraging consumption of leisure airline flights, together with their own aspirations to fly and how much they had actually flown in the previous year.
Analyses supported the conclusion that exposure to advertising predicted the desire to fly, which, in turn, predicted how much participants reported actually having flown for leisure in the previous year.
What can be done to stop adverts from fuelling the climate and ecological emergency? Quite a lot, in fact
First, as we’ve seen in the case of tobacco, there is substantial precedent for controlling the advertising of products that damage individual and public health and that pass costs on to the rest of society.
Adverts are also controlled to protect children’s mental health and to protect their physical health from, for example, junk food.
Second, adverts can also carry health and financial warnings, as has been done for cigarettes, alcohol, and other products.
Third, many cities around the world consider non-consensual advertising in public spaces (i.e., advertising that you didn’t choose to see and cannot avoid) as a form of visual pollution and therefore subject it to a range of controls.
It is also calling on government at all levels to use available powers to introduce low-carbon advertising policies.
Including clear mandated warnings on ads for ecologically-damaging products is another option.
Finally, especially where many local authorities have declared climate emergencies, it seems highly contradictory to allow the public advertising of things like highly polluting cars and flights; as such, Badvertising is calling for an end to ads for such products in public spaces.
Until now advertising’s role in the climate and ecological emergency has gone largely unseen. The time has come to correct advertising’s polluting pitch.
Professor Tim Kasser and Andrew Simms are co-authors of Advertising’s role in climate and ecological degradation available at: www.badverts.org. Tim Kasser is Emeritus Professor of Psychology. Andrew Simms is co-director of the New Weather Institute and coordinator of the Rapid Transition Alliance.