Diagnosing brain pollution

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Advertising is a type of ‘brain pollution’ says new ‘ministry’ campaign to stop adverts fuelling the climate emergency.

Brain pollution makes people want to work, shop, and consume relatively more rather than rest, recreate, and relate with others.

We’ve all heard of the disastrous effects of noise and air pollution for human health and the planet, but what about brain pollution?

Brain pollution is what you can call the well-established but poorly recognised effects that advertising has on human health and well-being, as well as how it promotes heavily polluting products and lifestyles. 

Find out more about the Ministry of the Climate Emergency campaign here.

Take action at badverts.org/action

In this way the brain pollution of advertising has a climate and ecological impact. But also several other impacts on people, as a long-overdue public health information campaign by the newly created non-government campaign 'Ministry for the Climate Emergency' dramatically makes clear.

Action

The video health warning is voiced by leading doctor and expert in commerciogenic diseases, Dr Chris Van Tulleken, who recently made a BBC documentary about the dangers of ultra-processed food.

Explaining his reasons for being involved, and on the dangers of advertising, Dr Chris Van Tulleken said: "The brain pollution of advertising creates not just the high-carbon lifestyles feeding the climate emergency, but also a wave of commerciogenic diseases ranging from malnutrition to depression.

"Yet this is one of the least talked about and understood aspects of the climate and public health crises. We are desperate for an official public information campaign, but in its place I am delighted that the Ministry for the Climate Emergency has appeared to fill the gap.

"We need to end the badvertising that undermines climate action and public health for both our health and our ultimate survival.”

Extensive scientific research shows that when exposed to advertising people “buy into” the materialistic values and goals it encourages.

Well-being

When this happens they report lower levels of personal well-being, experience conflict in relationships, engage in fewer positive social behaviours, and experience more problems both in study and work.

The more that people prioritise materialistic values and goals, the less they embrace positive attitudes about the environment and the more likely they are to behave in damaging ways.

As a result of exposure to brain pollution, people place more value on consuming what they see advertised and less on the time for things like playing sports, or with children or chatting with friends and family.

In other words, brain pollution makes people want to work, shop, and consume relatively more rather than rest, recreate, and relate with others - making us less enjoyable to be around as friends and family members.

More shocking still, the latest findings from neuroscience reveal that advertising goes as far as lodging itself in the brain, rewiring it by forming physical structures and causing permanent change.

MRI

Brands which have been made familiar through advertising have a strong influence on the choices people make.

Under MRI scans the logos of recognisable car brands are shown to activate a single region of the brain in the medial prefrontal cortex related to familiar logo recognition.

Proof of their influence on behaviour can be seen in how brands and logos generate strong preferences between virtually identical products, such as in the case of sweet, fizzy drinks.

When people are given drinks without packaging they tend to like them differently. However, when the drinks are branded it creates responses in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex and people express strong preferences for one of the drinks over the other.

Researchers conclude that "there are visual images and marketing messages that have insinuated themselves into the nervous systems of humans".

Exposure

Indeed, it has been known for decades that "if an ad does not modify the brains of the intended audience, then it has not worked." How we respond to a brand or product is "what the ad leaves behind".

Through a combination of experience and exposure to advertising, connected to emotional responses, brands and their logos become more ‘mentally available’, this happens through the development of new neural pathways which are reinforced by repeated exposure.

Further research demonstrates how exposure to different brands can influence the behaviour of people, for example making them behave more or less creatively, and more or less honestly.

Customisable tools for neural profiling are now available to test the effectiveness of brands and logos on consumers. 

Everywhere

How big is the problem of brain pollution? Well, for a start, advertising is everywhere. Its pervasive intrusion into our daily lives and brains is what makes it so powerful and effective.

It is so prevalent that we barely actively notice it anymore, much like the fine particulates of air pollution that enter our lungs unnoticed.

In 2017, an individual in the US was expected to encounter between 4,000-10,000 adverts daily. And these figures have been on a steep curve - almost doubling since 2007 - with the advent of digital advertising.

The car sector globally is estimated to have spent over $35.5 billion on advertising in key global markets in 2018 - roughly equal to the annual income of a country like Bolivia.

Modern advertising and marketing techniques, developed from war time propaganda methods, go back at least to the early 20th century.

Digital

Amplified over the following decades together with new digital technologies they have created a whole new market called the 'attention economy', with human attention now treated as a commodity by marketers and ad agencies.

Advertising occupies our everyday lives, whether in our private sphere watching TV, listening to the radio, reading newspapers and magazines, opening the mail, browsing the internet or social media.

Social media channels like Instagram and the whole new phenomenon of 'influencers' are now also rife with so-called 'native ads' which appear like normal posts but are in fact sponsored messages.

These are partly responsible for the enormous increase in the number of ads we are exposed to on a daily basis.

These adverts are also increasingly present in the public sphere with physical billboards looming in our towns and cities’ infrastructure, inside cinemas and not to forget ad agencies’ latest trick - digital screens - which are alone highly voracious in energy demand.

Children

Advertising’s new presence has avoided proper scrutiny, even though its strategies to target a young audience are ever more refined.

Research shows that children are now at the mercy of so-called 'surveillance advertising'. Figures in this area are pretty mind blowing.

It is estimated that by the time a child turns thirteen, adtech firms would have gathered 72 million data points on them.

Latest research reveals that 820 million profiles of children in the UK are being broadcast daily through online advertising marketplaces.

The more data collected from an early age, the easier it is for advertisers to turn young children into consumer targets.

Billboard artwork.

Detrimental

Why does it matter? The detrimental impacts of advertising’s brain pollution on mental health, human behaviour and relationships are well established.

The pursuit of the materialistic goals it encourages undermines individuals’ wellbeing.

When brain pollution enters the human body it makes us feel we are lacking something, triggers feelings of inadequacy and exploits our insecurities.

Marketing strategies directed at women in particular exploit bodily insecurities by promoting 'beauty ideals' that are only possible to reach by buying this or that product.

In studies, brain pollution is also seen to contaminate the human sense of care and compassion towards others - exactly the kind of important behaviours on display during the global coronavirus pandemic that helped pull so many through, and which are vital in confronting the climate emergency too.

Values

But, exposure to adverts lead us to focus more on so-called 'extrinsic values', those guiding our sense of competitiveness and greed through conformity, image, financial success, achievement and power - and less on 'intrinsic values' those that govern our feelings of empathy and caring towards others, expressed through affiliation, self-acceptance, community feeling, benevolence.

Advertising sets out to increase the consumption of products and services and the sector is getting bigger. But overconsumption of superfluous, non-essential goods is driving planetary breakdown.

Polluting, high-carbon, consumer lifestyles promoted by advertising are an obstacle to reaching safe climate and ecological targets. Adverts promoting large cars and privileged, frivolous flying are especially dangerous.

Over the last ten years, for example, brain pollution from car manufacturers selling large, high pollution 'sports utility vehicles' (SUVs) has risen dramatically.

In 2018, car maker Ford reportedly spent 85 percent of its advertising budget promoting SUVs and light trucks in the USA, a rise from 50 percent just two years earlier.

Controls

In 2019 the International Environment Agency (IEA) noted that SUVs were the second biggest cause of increasing CO2 emissions (after power generation, but ahead of aviation and heavy industry).

This type of advertising is not only fuelling our climate and nature crises but is promoting the burning of fossil fuels which chokes our towns and cities and whose air pollution in total was responsible for an estimated 8.7 million deaths in 2018.

The latest research shows that is more than the obvious examples too. In the case of advertising for beef and tobacco products there are clear links between advertising and the climate and ecological emergency.

As the latest IPCC report warned of a “code red” for humanity, the Ministry for the Climate Emergency campaign is trying to achieve greater public awareness of the dangers of brain pollution and the urgent need for more controls on the most damaging forms of advertising.

Tobacco

Who is responsible? Many advertising agencies have major polluters as clients.

London is a major centre, with companies such as Wavemaker working for the likes of Chevron, Texaco and Heathrow, UM has clients such as Exxon Mobil, Statoil and airline Emirates, and Mindshare clients like BP, Gazprom and Black Rock, all according to adbrands.net. There are many more.

When it comes to regulating advertising national regulatory bodies are in charge of policing commercial adverts and ensuring that adverts meet their codes of conduct and guidelines.

But instead of providing safeguards against the potential detrimental impacts of advertising on human wellbeing and nature - research shows that these bodies too often are enabling rather than checking the industry.

Would you trust health professionals charged with reducing the impacts of smoking on the public if its governing body included members of the tobacco industry? This, however, is how the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) - the UK advertising regulator - operates.

Ineffectiveness

Representatives of the industry are effectively given the power to write their own rules.

Similarly, regulators in the National Advertising Division of BBB National Programs in the United States and the Reklamombudsmannen (Advertising ombudsman) in Sweden are directly funded by the industry and governed by a process of self-regulation.

Research in the Journal of European Consumer and Market Law points at the ineffectiveness and inconsistencies of both the UK and Dutch advertising regulators, the Dutch Reclame Code Commissie, when it comes to regulating advertising by fossil fuel companies.

The process for removing harmful adverts is also cumbersome, and relies entirely on individuals’ willingness to file complaints.

Advertising regulators will then only consider those complaints if they are proven to be in breach of their own, often narrow, codes of conduct.

Greenwashing

And even in those cases it is not yet guaranteed that they will follow through with them.

But these codes are far from being adapted to changing political and social contexts or new urgent challenges like the climate emergency.

For instance they are not taking into account dangers posed by the rise in green marketing claims by major polluters in the car, aviation and energy industries.

Responding to the scale of this threat, in the UK recently, it took a different body, the Competition & Markets Authority, to launch a public consultation investigating misleading green claims, with the ASA only belatedly saying it will update its codes.

So far no regulations have been written to restrict greenwashing in particular.

Out-dated

When it comes to planning regulations that control advertising at the local level, current policies and guidance are out-dated and do not accommodate the natural concerns of councils and residents around a wide range of issues, from climate, to air pollution, environmental light pollution, the ‘attention economy’, mental health and the dominance of non-consensual adverts in public spaces.

Things have changed greatly too since existing rules were made, with the rising number of applications for digital brain pollution screens and changing advertising technologies that use facial detection and tracking capabilities.

Thousands of local authorities across the world have now declared a climate emergency and some are legally required to deliver on their zero carbon pledges.

Controls on the most damaging forms of advertising - for high-carbon goods and services - should now be included in those policies.

Badvertising

What can be done about it? Campaigns are now calling for legislation against high carbon advertising with a particular focus on fossil fuel companies, internal combustion engine cars and aviation.

The Badvertising campaign is also calling on local authorities to follow the example of local councils like Norwich, Liverpool and North Somerset in the UK and Amsterdam in the Netherlands in taking measures to end high-carbon advertising.

Governments and local authorities can use their powers to reduce brain pollution and stop adverts fuelling the climate emergency and several other cities around the world such as Grenoble, São Paulo, and Geneva have also taken steps to combat the effects of brain pollution caused by advertising.

Individuals can get involved, and officials and elected representatives find out more by going to badverts.org/action where you can watch the Ministry’s public information film or search #BrainPollution #Badvertising.

This Author 

Andrew Simms is co-director of the New Weather Institute, coordinator of the Rapid Transition Alliance, author of several books on new and green economics and co-author of the original Green New Deal. He is on twitter at @AndrewSimms_uk

Emilie Tricarico is a researcher and writer into social and ecological transitions and is cofounder of SEEKonomics. She tweets at @EmilieTricarico. 

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