I saw an interesting juxtaposition of billboards on my way through the station forecourt this morning. The first was for the Prince of Wales’ rainforest project, Rainforest SOS, and right behind it was a billboard from the Brazilian tourist board. The fact that we can’t all fly on holiday to Brazil and save the rainforest at the same time seems to be lost on whoever booked the ads.
It’s a common enough problem though, salespeople failing to match ads in the same space or page, or not bothering to consider the copy that the ad will appear alongside. Even the most dire climate change news article can appear alongside the latest budget airline skiing deals, a report on debt can sit next to the latest credit card offers. The news tells us one thing, and the adverts tell us something entirely different. And since the adverts are always glossier, more colourful and altogether preferable, they act as a kind of suppressant, an inoculation against reality.
In time, I’d love to see the advertising of carbon intensive activities controlled a little. We don’t allow billboards or TV spots for cigarettes any more, for health reasons. Climate change is going to kill a lot more people than smoking, so why should we tolerate billboards for cheap flights?
Until these things become socially and politically unacceptable, companies and publications could at least start by taking responsibility for their advertising. No matter how many environmental correspondents they hire or what their stance might be, most of our media outlets are riddled with mixed messages. It’s just hypocrisy to claim an environmental agenda and then run counter-productive advertising. Ads “generate behavioural norms,” as George Monbiot wrote earlier this year. “Advertising is not neutral copy.”
It’s time for some bolder ethical advertising policies. I’m going to write to a few newspapers, starting with the ones I read myself, asking where they draw the lines. If you’re interested in writing to your favourite news sources aswell, let me know, and we’ll see if we can put together a picture of advertising standards and what we can do to raise them.