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|Think Of Me As Evil? Opening the Ethical Debates in Advertising|
There is compelling evidence that advertising is not only contributing to climate change and resource depletion, it is undermining our values and eroding wellbeing. We can no longer ignore the cultural impact of advertising, says a report by the Public Interest Research Centre and WWF-UK.
4th November 2011
October 2011 - Public Interest Research Centre (PIRC) and WWF-UK
The opening quote to this report is taken from an article by Rory Sutherland, Vice Chairman of Ogilvy UK and then President of the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising (IPA). He concluded his article in Market Leader last year by inviting a serious-minded debate about the role of advertising and marketing in society: “I am much keener that we should accept the vast moral implications of what we all do and debate them openly rather than fudge the issue.”
It is to Sutherland’s invitation that this report responds. Too often, the debate for which he calls has been held back by shrill and poorly-evidenced arguments on both sides. On the one hand, advertising’s detractors have sometimes been quick to level accusations that are poorly supported by the empirical evidence. On the other hand, the industry’s supporters have often been overly dismissive of opposing viewpoints: perhaps happy that the unsteady opposition which they encounter allows them to rely upon an incomplete evidence base, and arguments that are at times inconsistent. The Advertising Association has itself stated that “the stock of research, analysis and academic study to support, justify, buttress and prove [advertising’s] worth is at rock bottom.”
The public debate about advertising—such as it exists—has also been curiously unfocused and sporadic. Civil society organisations have almost always used the products advertised as their point of departure—attacking the advertising of a harmful product like tobacco, or alcohol, for instance—rather than developing a deeper critical appraisal of advertising in the round. The inconsistencies contained within the Code of the Committee of Advertising Practice the CAP Code) are symptomatic of an industry that has seldom been challenged to reconsider its fundamental assumptions.
This report argues that modern advertising’s impact on British culture is likely to be detrimental to our wellbeing, and may well exacerbate the social and environmental problems that we collectively confront. The balance of evidence points clearly in this direction.
The standard defences of the advertising industry can be summarised in three assertions, which, taken together, reflect the main industry response to critics of advertising:
This report addresses each assertion in turn. It finds that, while there is material to support each claim, there is also substantial evidence to the contrary. We present evidence that advertising increases overall consumption; that it promotes and normalises a whole host of behaviours, attitudes and values, many of which are socially and environmentally damaging; that it manipulates individuals on a subconscious level, both children and adults; and that it is so pervasive in modern society as to make the choice of opting-out from exposure virtually impossible.
In constructing these arguments, this report also strives to be clear about where the evidence base does not allow firm conclusions to be drawn about the impacts of advertising. But it is not good enough for the industry to be content with such areas of uncertainty: there are clearly important grounds for concern about the impacts of advertising, and research to clarify these concerns is urgently needed. Responsible advertising agencies and their clients should begin to find ways to support such research—while preserving the independence of the investigators. The advertising industry should also take precautionary action to reduce its probable negative impacts in ways we recommend in our concluding chapter. Civil society organisations, meanwhile, need to give much greater attention to the impacts that advertising has on British society, culture, and the global environment.
28th October 2011 - Guy Shrubsole, openDemocracy
“The truth is that marketing raises enormous ethical questions every day – at least it does if you’re doing it right.” So wrote Rory Sutherland, former President of the British Institute of Practitioners in Advertising, in a provocative article last year entitled We can't run away from the ethical debates in marketing.
We certainly can’t – and that’s why the Welsh-based Public Interest Research Centre (the organisation I work for) and WWF-UK this week published a new report examining some of these crucial ethical questions. Think Of Me As Evil? Opening the ethical debates in advertising scrutinises the impacts of advertising on consumption, on freedom of choice, and on cultural values.
In each case, we find there is much cause for concern. There is compelling evidence that advertising is exacerbating the ecological crisis by boosting consumption of energy and resources; that it influences our values and identities in ways that undermine social and environmental concern; and that it is eroding wellbeing and freedom of choice.
“As a society becomes increasingly affluent, wants are increasingly created by the process by which they are satisfied… producers may proceed actively to create wants through advertising and salesmanship.”
If advertising is artificially inflating consumption, then it is not only contributing to climate change and resource depletion – it is doing so needlessly, creating dissatisfaction that it then aims to salve through retail therapy.
Advertisers generally tend to dismiss such arguments: advertising simply redistributes consumption between brands, they claim, rather than growing the market. But others are more candid. Guy Murphy, Global Strategy Director at agency JWT, has written that “… it is simply not true to say that advertising does not influence market size.” A spread of statistical studies agree with him – finding that, in many cases, an economy’s aggregate consumption has risen in response to an increase in advertising expenditure. Other studies suggest advertising encourages people to save less, borrow more, and work longer hours to satisfy the increased material aspirations instilled in them. It would be more honest, Murphy states, for advertisers to regard themselves “as trying to manipulate culture: being social engineers, not brand managers.”
Indeed, advertising’s powers of manipulation are now formidable. We might like to consider ourselves immune, too savvy to get hooked. But the sheer pervasiveness of modern advertising – and its increasingly subtle nature – militate strongly against that. Over fifty years ago, the journalist Vance Packard blew the whistle on this in his classic work The Hidden Persuaders, in which he wrote:
“Large-scale efforts are being made, often with impressive success, to channel our unthinking habits, our purchasing decisions, and our thought processes by the use of insights gleaned from psychiatry and the social sciences…”
At the time, Madison Avenue’s ‘mad men’ violently rejected Packard’s arguments. But today, they are increasingly embraced by brand consultants themselves. The founders of ad agency Acacia Avenue, Wendy Gordon and Peter Langmaid, argue that “there is irrefutable proof of the presence in the consumer’s mind of advertising messages… that are inaccessible to conscious recall.” Smart agencies, seeking to attain greater ‘cut-through’ for their clients’ products in ever-more competitive marketplaces, are always looking for new ways to influence consumers. Examples abound: for example, Robin Wight, President of communications company Engine, recently launched an initiative calling for the standard adoption of brain scanning in development research. (The website detailing his initiative has since been taken down, following industry concerns that it would damage reputations.) RealEyes, a data collection company, specialises in eye-scanning technology that allows advertisers to gauge what parts of an advert is most looked at by passers-by.
Meanwhile, advertising proliferates: on billboards, on TV screens, online. One marketing textbook estimates the average American is exposed to 500-1000 ads a day; Britons are unlikely to be far behind. Advertisers claim their work helps promote freedom of choice, but we are no longer free to choose not to be advertised at. Yet this appears to be an issue overlooked by civil liberties organisations to date.
Most fundamentally of all is the impact advertising may be having on our values. Extensive research by social psychologists has shown that a particular set of ‘intrinsic’ values – such as concern for community, equality and unity with nature – underpin people’s support for tackling social and environmental challenges. Opposing, ‘extrinsic’ values – concern for social status, wealth, personal achievement – serve to undermine such responses. Emphasising one set of values strengthens the degree to which a person holds them and de-emphasises opposing values. The great majority of adverts, in their appeals to social status, conspicuous consumption and the importance of material possessions, appeal to extrinsic values – hence eroding those cultural values that will drive a transition to a sustainable society. Appeals to intrinsic values simply for the purposes of selling products may also generate problems of their own.
Think Of Me As Evil? is not categorical in its claims about these problems and recognises that in some areas more research is needed. But there is sufficient evidence to put the ball firmly in the advertising industry’s court and require them to prove their impact is in fact benign. Civil society organisations, meanwhile – from environmental groups to civil liberties campaigners – should make common cause in holding the industry to account. It’s to Sutherland’s credit that he appears to be up for such a debate. As he wrote in his article: “[A]s marketers, we should once again engage in ethical discussion – and be ready to lose the argument to the public once in a while.”
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