Democratising advertising space

City advertising
What role might advertisers play in tackling climate change and creating a better world?

Breaking free means allowing people to shape their own lives, their communities, our world.

A good debate topic is controversial and provocative. I recently took part in a debate that fits the bill:  "The ad industry has a greater role to play in fighting climate change than politicians”.

You might guess that I was arguing the negative, but the challenge was that this is an Advertising Week debate, and so the audience were all, more or less, be advertisers. I didn’t want to offend them, but win them over.

So I was glad to be able to offer them an out, a route to a better life for them as individuals, using their skills, talents and experience not just for better causes, but in a much more enjoyable, freer, rewarding way – and I don’t (just) mean going into politics.


We’ve created miserable, unstable, insecure societies while treating the planet as a mine and a dumping ground, stretching it to its physical limits and beyond.

Similarly, in the advertising industry we’ve taken people with brilliant creative skills, with images, with words, with feelings, and directed them to spend all their time trying to convince us that ultraprocessed, fat, sugar and salt-stuffed, plastic-wrapped pap is tasty food, or that an oversized, dangerous lump of metal and plastic will give us the life of an intrepid explorer, powering over mountains and swish through rivers, when actually it will be stuck on a fume-filled suburban road, filled with fractious and unhappy children, going nowhere.

It would be an improvement to fund these advertisers to put those skills to better use, promoting healthy, locally-grown apples home baked with love into a luscious pie, or to portraying the joy of cycling through a peaceful, people-filled city, flowers blooming in planters, bees buzzing in the fresh air, waving to friends and neighbours.

This new advertising could show a grandma in her beautifully warm, insulated home, chatting to her grandkids, not worrying about a heating bill – a world generated by all of the kind of superpolicies that we need to tackle the climate emergency and  a better life.

Breaking free means allowing people to shape their own lives, their communities, our world.

But this is still selling ideas for people to consume. It is a model that has a passive audience, objects not subjects, a one-way exchange.

What we really need is to tackle climate change, to deliver the indivisible economic and environmental justice that has to be our future, democracy, active citizens, engagement, activity, people with the time not just to consume but to create, to shape their own world.


This has to be a world in which people do politics, not have it done to them.

As the French theorist Yves Citton puts it, we’re currently at the dead end of extractivism and colonialism. The final target for which has been people’s attention – captured with technology, mapped and sold by the new social media giants.

Breaking free means allowing people to shape their own lives, their communities, our world. That’s not a world in which neatly prepackaged products, even admirable, planet and people-friendly products and activities, are sold to passive consumers.

What that world needs instead is inspiration, ideas, images, creativity, the sort of surprising, exciting, enrapturing, gripping emotions that we get from a great work of art, a wonderful novel, a touching film, a shocking painting.

Borrowing the terms of McKenzie Wark, that’s the hacker class taking over from the vectoralist class – a democratisation of cyber and real spaces, everyone a creator, having a say in the new world.


It is a world, that my audience may find shocking. In a world without mass advertising there’d be too much competition for one voice to be dominant.

So, sorry Advertising Week, I’ve just written you out of business, or to a considerably smaller business.

But that doesn’t mean unemployment for my audience – for many of them, I’m sure, would really love, maybe even try to find now, the time for that great novel, that spectacular piece of music, that yearning artist to burst from their daily grind and be allowed free expression. Or maybe to use the time setting up a community garden or other running a children’s reading club.

But perhaps most attractive is the chance instead to be the producer or director of the next smash-hit, word-of-mouth, movie, or the writer of the next catchy pop tune that takes the world by storm not through promotional budget but sheer joyous fun.

I will offer just one suggestion for that. Because what people, the world, the fight against the climate emergency need, beyond the time and security to unleash their talents is hope. So please, freed advertising people, don’t dedicate your talents to zombie movies, apocalypse novels or a reprises of The Third of May 1808.

Instead, let’s have, say, a rom com – a classic format of boy meets boy, boy loses boy, boys get together again – set against a background 30 years hence.

There’s no poverty or exploitation of workers, there is universal basic income and a standard three-day working week, the energy is 100 percent renewable, the streets are thronged with walkers and cyclists, the public transport is wonderful, the food fresh, local and delicious, nature is flourishing and the climate settling – everything has worked out.


This is a creative vision we really need people to see – and the people of the advertising world have the skills and creativity to paint it - not as a product, but a deliverable practical future.

But it is politicians – or rather democracy, all of the people doing politics together – that is key to the delivery of such a world.

This Author 

Natalie Bennett is a Green Party peer.  

More from this author