Printer Friendly

Can't live without it.

A dizzying array of advertisements is reaching into every corner of the globe and into the most private realms of the human psyche. Is this skillful stimulation of wants and desires compatible with the quest for a sustainable society?

Last January a single message was broadcast simultaneously in every inhabited part of the globe. The message was was not "love thy neighbor" or "thou shalt not kill." It was "Drink Coke."

This first global advertisement was, on the face of it, simply a piece of technical showmanship-an inevitable one, considering the pace of change in telecommunications. On a symbolic level, however, it was something more. It was a neat encapsulation of the main trend in human communications worldwide: commercialization.

For better or for worse, almost all of humanity's 5.5 billion individuals, divided among 6,000 distinct cultures, are now soaking in the same gentle bath of advertising. The unctuous voices of the marketplace are insinuating themselves into ever more remote quarters of the globe and ever more private realms of human life.

Advertising has become one of the world's premier cultural forces. Almost every living person knew the word "Coke," for example, long before the global ad. Two years ago, the trade journal Adweek published a two-page spread depicting Hitler, Lenin, Napoleon, and a Coke bottle. "Only one," read the caption, "launched a campaign that conquered the world. How did Coke succeed where history's most ambitious leaders failed? By choosing the right weapon. Advertising."

Aside from the arrogance of that statement, what is disturbing about it is its truth. Owing to skillful and persistent marketing, Coke is sold in virtually every place people live. Go to the end of a rural road on any Third World continent, walk a day up a donkey trail to a hardscrabble village, and ask for a Coke. Odds are, you'll get one. This state of affairs-development workers call it "Coca-Colonization"-means that Coke's secret formula has probably reached more villages and slums than has clean drinking water or oral rehydration formula.

The point here is not to single out

Coca-Cola - others would have circum-advertised the globe soon if the soft drink empire hadn't-but rather to question whether advertising has outgrown its legitimate role in human affairs. Advertisers maintain that their craft, far from being too widely practiced, is just beginning to achieve its destiny: to stimulate business growth, create jobs, and to unify humanity by eroding the ancient hatreds that divide us and joining us together in the universal fellowship of a Coke.

But from the perspective of the Earth's long-term health, the advertising industry looks somewhat different. Stripped to its essentials, contemporary advertising has three salient characteristics. It preys on the weaknesses of its host. It creates an insatiable hunger. And it leads to debilitating over-consumption. In the biological realm, things of that nature are called parasites.

If that rather pointed metaphor is apt, we are left with the sticky problem doctors face in treating any parasite: finding a medicine and a dosage that will kill the worm without poisoning the patient. How can we restrain the excesses of advertising without resorting to poisonous state censorship or curtailing the flow of information in society? Actions that are too heavy-handed, for example, could bankrupt the free - but advertising-dependent - press.

The Manufacture of Needs

The purpose of advertising, according to orthodox economic theory, is to provide us with information about the goods and services offered in the marketplace. Without that stream of information we consumers won't make informed choices, and Adam Smith's invisible hand will be not only invisible but also blind. We won't know when a better frozen dinner comes along, nor will we know where to get the best deal on a new car.

The contents of marketing messages themselves, however, show the simple-mindedness of that explanation. Classified ads and yellow page telephone directories would suffice if advertising were only about telling people who already want something where to get it and what it costs. Rather, advertising is intended to expand the pool of desires, awakening wants that would lie dormant otherwise - or, as critics say, manufacturing wants that would not otherwise exist.

Entire industries have manufactured a need for themselves. Writes one advertising executive, ads can serve "to make [people] self-conscious about matter of course things such as enlarged nose pores [and] bad breath." Historically, advertisers have especially targeted women, playing on personal insecurities and self-doubt by projecting impossible ideals of feminine beauty.

As B. Earl Puckett, then head of the department store chain Allied Stores Corporation, put it 40 years ago, "It is our job to make women unhappy with what they have." Thus for those born with short, skinny eyelashes, the message mongers offer hope. For those whose hair is too straight, or too curly, or grows in the wrong places, for those whose skin is too dark or too light, for those whose body weight is distributed in anything but this year's fashion, advertising assures that synthetic salvation is close at hand.

Ads are stitched together from the eternal cravings of the human psyche. Their ingredients are images of sexual virility, eternal youth, social belonging, individual freedom, and existential fulfillment. Advertisers sell not artifacts but lifestyles, attitudes, and fantasies, hitching their wares to the infinite yearnings of the soul.

They also exploit the desire individuals in mass societies feel to define a distinctive identity. Peter Kim, director of research and consumer behavior for the advertising agency J. Walter Thompson, says the role of brands in consumer society is "much akin to the role of myth in traditional societies. Choosing a brand becomes a way for one group of consumers to differentiate themselves from another."

Advertisers are extraordinarily sophisticated in the pursuit of these ends. The most finely wrought ads are masterpieces - combining stunning imagery, bracing speed, and compelling language to touch our innermost fears and fancies. Prime-time television commercials in the industrial countries pack more suggestion into a minute than anything previously devised.

From an anthropological perspective, ads are among the supreme creations of this era, standing in relation to our technological, consumer culture as the pyramids did to the ancients and the Gothic cathedrals to the medievals. Those structures embodied faith in the transcendent, acted out a quest for immortality, and manifested hierarchical social rankings. Advertisements, like our age, are mercurial, hedonistic, image-laden, and fashion-driven; they glorify the individual, idealize consumption as the route to personal fulfillment, and affirm technological progress as the motive force of destiny.

Advertising and the Earth

Of course, advertising is not the only force to promote consumption in today's world. That point is amply evident in the recent history of Eastern Europe. There, where most advertising was illegal under the communist regimes of the past, popular desires for the Western consumer lifestyle were pervasive - indeed, they were among the forces that overthrew socialism. Communism had failed to deliver the goods.

Other forces driving the earth-threatening consumption levels of the world's affluent societies include everything from human nature's acquisitive streak to the erosion of informal, neighborhood sharing networks that has accompanied the rising mobility of our time. They include social pressures to keep up with the Joneses, the proliferation of "convenience" goods to meet the time-crunch created by rising working hours, national economic policies that favor consumption over savings and raw materials production over efficiency and recycling, and the prevailing trend in urban design - away from compact, human-scale cities toward anonymous, auto-scale malls and sprawl.

All these things - plus the weight of sheer purchasing power - define one of the world's most pressing environmental challenges: to trim resource consumption in industrial countries. Citizens of these nations typically consume 10 times as much energy as their developing country counterparts, along with 10 times the timber, 13 times the iron and steel, 14 times the paper, 18 times the synthetic chemicals, and 19 times the aluminum.

The consumer societies take the lion's share of the output of the world's mines, logging operations, petroleum refineries, metal smelters, paper mills, and other high-impact industrial plants. These enterprises, in turn, account for a disproportionate share of the resource depletion, environmental pollution, and habitat degradation that humans have caused worldwide. A world full of consumer societies is an ecological impossibility.

And even if advertising is not the sole force driving up consumption, it is an important one. It is a powerful champion of the consumer lifestyle, and is spreading its influence widely.

Commercializing the Globe

"Fifty years ago," wrote philosopher Ivan Illich in 1977, "most of the words an American heard were personally spoken to him as an individual, or to someone standing nearby. " That certainly isn't true today. Most of the words an American - or a citizen of any industrial country - hears are sales pitches broadcast over the airwaves to us as members of a mass market. The text we read, the images we see, and the public places we visit are all dominated by commercial messages.

Take the example of commercial television, long the premier advertising medium. Aside from sleeping and working, watching television is the leading activity in most consumer societies, from the United States and the United Kingdom to Japan and Singapore.

Commercial TV is advancing around the world, and everywhere it has proved exceptionally effective at stimulating buying urges. As Anthony J.F. Reilly, chief executive of the food conglomerate H.J. Heinz, told Fortune magazine, "Once television is there, people of whatever shade, culture, or origin want roughly the same things." Harnessed as an educational tool, TV can be powerful and effective, as in India and Africa, where lessons are beamed to teacher-less villages. But the overwhelming trend in broadcasting almost everywhere is commercialization.

In 1985, the International Advertising Association rhapsodized: "The magical marketing tool of television has been bound with the chains of laws and regulations in much of the world, and it has not been free to exercise more than a tiny fraction of its potential as a conduit of the consumer information and economic stimulation provided by advertising. Those chains are at last being chiseled off."

During the 1980s, governments deregulated or privatized television programming in most of Western Europe. Public broadcasting monopolies splintered in Belgium, France, Italy, Germany, Norway, Portugal, Spain, and Switzerland - allowing advertising on a scale previously witnessed only in the United States. As the European Community became both a single market and a common broadcasting region this year, advertising time on European TV became a hot commodity, providing access to the region's 330 million consumers and $4 trillion of disposable income.

Meanwhile, commercial television is quickly spreading outside the industrial countries. In India, declares Gurcharan Das, chairman of Procter & Gamble India, "an advertiser can reach 200 million people every night" through television. India has gone from 3 million TVs in 1983 to more than 14 million today. Latin America has built or imported 60 million sets, almost one per family, since the earl 1950s. All told, perhaps half the world's people have access to commercial television broadcasts.

The commercialization of television is just one part of the general expansion of advertising worldwide, an expansion that includes magazines and newspapers, billboards and displays, catalogs, and other media. The overall growth stands out starkly in historical trends.

Total global advertising expenditures multiplied nearly sevenfold from 1950 to 1990; they grew one-third faster than the world economy and three times faster than world population. They rose-in real, inflation-adjusted terms - from $39 billion in 1950 to $256 billion in 1990. (For comparison, the gross national product of India, the world's second most populous state, was just $253 billion that year.) In 1950, advertisers spent $16 for each person on the planet, in 1970 they spent $27, and in 1990, $48 (see figure this page).

Americans are the most advertised-to people on Earth. U.S. marketers account for nearly half of the world's ad budget, according to the International Advertising Association in New York, spending $468 per American in 1991. Among the industrial countries, Japan is second in the advertising league, dedicating more than $300 per citizen to sales pitches each year. Western Europe is close behind. A typical European is the target of more than $200 worth of ads a year. The latest boom is under way in Eastern Europe, a region that John Lindquist of the Boston Consulting Group calls "an advertising executive's dream - people actually remember advertisements."

Advertising is growing fast in developing countries as well, though it remains small-scale by Western standards. South Korea's advertising industry grew 35 to 40 percent annually in the late 1980s, and yearly ad billings in India jumped fivefold in the 1980s, surpassing one dollar per person for the first time.

Ad-ing Life

The sheer magnitude of the advertising barrage in consumer societies has some ironic results. For one thing, the clamor for people's attention means relatively few advertisements stick. Typical Americans are exposed to some 3,000 commercial messages a day, according to Business Week. Amid such a din, who notices what any one ad says?

To lend their messages greater influence, marketers are forced to deliver ever higher quality pitches - and to seek new places to make them. They are constantly on the lookout for new routes into people's consciousness.

With the advent of the remote control, the mute button, and the video cassette recorder during the 1980s, people could easily avoid TV commercials, and advertisers had to seek out consumers elsewhere. Expanding on the traditional print and broadcast media, advertisers began piping messages into classrooms and doctors' offices, weaving them into the plots of feature films, posting them on chair-lift poles, printing them on postage stamps and board games, stitching them on Boy Scout merit badges and professional athletes' jerseys, mounting them in bathroom stalls, and playing them back between rings on public phones.

Marketers hired telephone solicitors, both human and computerized, to call people directly in their homes. They commissioned essays from well-known authors, packaged them between fall-page ads fore and aft, and mailed them to opinion leaders to polish the sponsors' images. And they created ad-packed television programming for use at airports, bus stops, subway stations, exercise clubs, ski resorts, and supermarket checkout lines.

This creeping commercialization of life has a certain inevitability to it. As the novelty of each medium wears off, advertisers invent another one, relentlessly expanding the share of our collective attention span that they occupy with sales spiels.

Next, they will meet us at the mall, follow us to the dinner table, and shine down on us from the heavens. In shopping centers, they have begun erecting wall-sized video screens to heighten the frenzy of the shopping experience. Food engineers are turning the food supply into an advertising medium. The Viskase company of Chicago prints edible ad slogans on hot dogs, and Eggverts International is using a similar technique to advertise on thousands of eggs in Israel. Lighting engineers are hard at work on feather-weight ways to turn blimps into giant airborne neon signs, and, demonstrating that not even the sky is the limit, Coca-Cola convinced orbiting Soviet cosmonauts to sip their soda on camera a couple of years ago.

The main outcome of this deadening commercialization is to sell not particular products, but consumerism itself. The implicit message of all advertising is the idea that there is a product to solve each of life's problems. Every commercial teaches that existence would be satisfying and complete if only we bought the right things. As religious historian Robert Bellah put it, "That happiness is to be attained through limitless material acquisition is denied by every religion and philosophy known to humankind, but is preached incessantly by every American television set."

Get'em While They're Young

The commercialization of space and time has been accompanied by the commercialization of youth. Marketers are increasingly targeting the young. One specialist in marketing to children told the Wall Street Journal, "Even two-year-olds are concerned about their brand of clothes, and by the age of six are full-out consumers." American children and teenagers sit through about three hours of television commercials each week - 20,000 ads a year, translating to 360,000 by the time they graduate from high school.

The children's market in the United States is so valuable - topping $75 billion in 1990 - that American companies spent $500 million marketing to kids in 1990, five times more than they spent a decade earlier. They started cartoons centered around toys and began direct-mail marketing to youngsters enrolled in their company-sponsored "clubs."

Such saturation advertising has allowed some firms to stake huge claims in the children's market. Mattel vice president Meryl Friedman brags, "Mattel has achieved a stunning 95 percent penetration with Barbie [dolls] among girls age 3 to 11 in the United States."

Predictably, major retailers have opened Barbie departments to compete for the loyalty of doll-doting future consumers, and marketers pay premium prices to employ the dolls as an advertising medium. Barbies come equipped with Reebok shoes and Benetton clothes.

Madison Avenue's Paper Trail

Advertising's main ecological danger may be the consumption it inspires, but it also consumes heavily itself. Advertisers use a substantial share of the world's paper, particularly its heavily-processed high-quality paper. Paper production involves not only forest damage but also large energy inputs and pollution outputs.

Ads pack the daily mail: 14 billion glossy, difficult-to-recycle mail-order catalogs plus 38 billion other assorted ads clog the post office each year in the United States. Most of those items go straight into the trash - including 98 percent of advertising letters sent in direct-mail campaigns, according to the marketing journal American Demographics.

Ads fill periodicals: most American magazines reserve 60 percent of their pages for advertising, and some devote far more. Bride's was so proud of its February/March 1990 edition that it submitted the issue to the Guinness Book of World Records and boasted in Advertising Age, "The Biggest Magazine in History.... It contains 1,040 pages - including 798 advertising pages."

Newspapers are no different; in the United States, they typically contain 65 percent, up from 40 percent half a century ago. Every year, Canada cuts 42,000 acres of its primeval forests - an area the size of the District of Columbia - just to provide American dailies with newsprint on which to run advertisements.

For big and immediate paper savings, newspapers could shift classified advertising - and telephone companies their directories - onto pay-per-use electronic data bases accessible through phone lines. Still, advertising remains heavy in non-classified sections of newspapers. Trim out all the ads and most of the text would fit in a single section.

The problem in reducing the scale of advertising in the print media is that the financial viability of newspapers and magazines is linked to the number of advertising pages they sell. In the past two years of economic recession, for example, advertising pages have been harder to sell, and many periodicals have been forced to publish fewer articles. That is not good for the flow of information in democratic societies. To get less-commercialized information sources, subscribers may have to accept higher prices, as have the readers of Ms., which dropped advertising three years ago.

The Industry of Needs

The needs industry - advertising - defends itself, ultimately, by claiming that advertising, whatever its social and cultural demerits, is an indispensable component of a healthy economy. As one Madison Avenue axiom counsels, "A terrible thing happens when you don't advertise: Nothing." Advertising, in this view, isn't the trim on the industrial economy, it's the fuel. Take out the ads, and the economy sputters to a halt; put in more ads, and the economy zooms. More ads equal more wants, more wants make more spending, and more spending makes more jobs.

Some promoters even call for governments to foster more advertising. The American Advertising Federation took out a full page in Time magazine last March to write, "Dear Mr. President...We respectfully remind you of advertising's role as an engine of economic growth. It raises capital, creates jobs, and spurs production...It increases government revenues since jobs produce taxable income, and greater sales increase sales taxes...Incentives to advertise are incentives for growth."

The validity of such claims is dubious, of course, but they cut to the heart of a critical issue. Even if advertising does promote growth, the question remains as to what kind of growth. Growth in numbers of second mortgages and third cars and fourth televisions may increase the money flowing around the economy without making us one bit happier. If much advertising is an exercise in generating dissatisfaction so that people will spend more and work harder, the entire process appears morally questionable. Several generations ago, Catholic theologian John Ryan dubbed this treadmill "squirrel cage progress."

Many of the areas in which the world needs growth most desperately - environmental literacy, racial and sexual equality, and political participation, for example - are not the stuff of advertising campaigns. "Civilization, in the real sense of the term," advised Gandhi, "consists not in the multiplication, but in the deliberate and voluntary reduction of wants."

Re-channeling Advertising

What legitimate role is there for advertising, then? In a sustainable society, how much advertising would there be?

None! say some, as E.F. Schumacher commented in 1979: "What is the great bulk of advertising other than the stimulation of greed, envy and avarice...at least three of the seven deadly sins?" More succinctly, reader Charlotte Burrowes of Penacook, New Hampshire, wrote to World Watch a year ago, "There'll be a special hell for advertisers."

In fairness, though, some advertising does provide useful information about products and services. The task for democratic societies struggling to restore balance between themselves and their ecosystems is to decide how much advertising to tolerate, and while respecting the rights of individuals to speak their minds, to place appropriate limits on marketing.

The precise limits cannot yet be identified, but it may help define the issue to consider whether there are spaces that should be free of advertising. Churches? Schools? Hospitals? Funeral homes? Parks? Homes? Work places? Books? Public libraries? Public swimming pools? Public buildings? Public buses? Public streets? Mail boxes? Newspapers? Television broadcasts? What about times of day, days of the week, and times of life? Early morning? Sundays? Childhood?

Restraining the excesses of marketers and limiting commercials to their legitimate role of informing consumers would require fundamental reforms in the industry, changes that will not come about without a well-organized grassroots movement. The advertising industry is a formidable foe on the march around the world, and advertisers are masters at the slippery art of public relations. Madison Avenue can buy the best talents available to counter and circumvent reformers' campaigns, unless those campaigns are carefully focused and begin with the industry's vulnerabilities.

Advertising's Achilles heel is its willingness to push products demonstrably dangerous to human health, and this is the area where activists have been most successful and best organized. Tobacco ads are or soon will be banished from television throughout the Western democracies, and alcohol commercials are under attack as never before.

Another ready target for advertising reform activists is the assault that marketers make on children. Public sentiment runs strongly against marketing campaigns that prey on youngsters. Action for Children's Television, a citizens' group based in Boston, won a victory in late 1990 when the U.S. Congress limited television commercials aimed at children. The same year, public interest organizations in the European Community pushed through standards for European television that will put strict limits on some types of ads.

The Australian Consumers' Association is attacking junk food ads, calling for a ban or tough restrictions on hawking unhealthful fare to youngsters. Of food ads aired during children's television programs, the association's research shows that 80 percent are for high-fat, high-salt, excessively packaged snacks. The American Academy of Pediatrics is similarly concerned. Noting the high proportion of advertisements for products that violate nutrition guidelines, the organization is urging Congress to ban food ads that target the young.

Alternatively, consumers could take aim at trumped-up corporate environmental claims. Since 1989, marketers have been painting their products "green" in an attempt to defuse citizen anger at corporate ecological transgressions. In 1990, for example, the oil company Texaco offered Americans "free" tree seedlings to plant for the good of the environment; to qualify, a customer had to buy eight or more gallons of gasoline. Unmentioned in the marketing literature was the fact that it takes a typical tree about four years to store as much carbon dioxide as is released in refining and burning eight gallons of fuel, and that most tree seedlings planted by amateurs promptly die.

In the United States, one fourth of all new household products introduced in 1990 advertised themselves as "ozone-friendly," "biodegradable," "recyclable," "compostable," or something similar - claims that half of all Americans recognize as "gimmickry." Environmentalists in the Netherlands and France have attempted to cut away such misinformation by introducing a 12-point environmental advertising code in their national legislatures. Ten state attorneys general are pushing for similar national standards in the United States. Meanwhile, official and unofficial organizations throughout Europe, North America, and Japan have initiated "green labeling" programs, aiming to steer consumers to environmentally preferable products.

Efforts to restrict advertising of tobacco and alcohol, to curtail advertising to children, and to regulate environmental claims of marketers are parts of a broader agenda. The nonprofit Center for the Study of Commercialism in Washington, D.C., is calling for an end to brand-name plugs in feature films, for schools to declare themselves advertising-free zones, and for revision of the tax code so that money spent on advertising is taxable.

Just as the expanding reach of advertising is not going unchallenged, small networks of citizens everywhere are beginning to confront commercial television. In Vancouver, British Columbia, English teacher Michael Maser gets secondary students to study television production so they will be able to recognize techniques used to manipulate viewers' sentiments. Millions of young people could benefit from such a course, considering how many products are pitched to them on TV. Along the same lines as Maser's teaching, the Center for Media and Values in Los Angeles has been promoting media literacy since 1989, by furnishing parents throughout North America with tips on teaching their children to watch with a critical eye.

More boldly, some attempt to fight fire with fire. The Vancouver-based Media Foundation is building a movement aimed at using the same cleverness and humor evident in much commercial advertising to promote sustainable ends. Local groups raise funds to show the group's products on commercial television and in commercial magazines. TV spots have run in California, Ontario, and a half-dozen other states and provinces. Their "Tube Head" series of ads tell viewers to shut off the set. In one magazine ad, above a photo of a dark, sleek sports car, a caption purrs, "At this price, it will surely take your breath away." And below: "$250,000." In fine print, it explains, "U.S. sticker price based on individual share of social costs associated with automobiles in U.S. over average car life of 10 years. Does not include ...oil spills at sea and on land; acid rain from auto emissions...environmental and health costs from global warming."

The premier spot in the Media Foundation's "High on the Hog" campaign shows a gigantic animated pig frolicking on a map of North America while a narrator intones: "Five percent of the people in the world consume one-third of the planet's resources.... Those people are us." The pig belches.

Imagine a message like that broadcast simultaneously to every inhabited part of the globe!

Alan Thein Durning is a senior researcher at Worldwatch Institute and author of How Much Is Enough? The Consumer Society and the Future of the Earth (W.W. Norton, 1992).
COPYRIGHT 1993 Worldwatch Institute
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:damaging effects of advertising
Author:Durning, Alan Thein
Publication:World Watch
Date:May 1, 1993
Words:4620
Previous Article:Plunder behind the bamboo curtain.
Next Article:For the love of gold.
Topics:


Related Articles
New Drug Keeps HIV Out of Cells.
FRIENDLY VALLEY SENIORS FACE SECOND WINTER OF NO HEAT.
A new appreciation blows in with storm.
Voters need a record.
TEXANS VOTING ON WHETHER TO PROTECT DAMAGES CAP.
Supreme Court lets Third Circuit ruling on fen-phen evidence stand.
Your brain on drugs: It's not a normal brain.

Terms of use | Copyright © 2016 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters