consumerism corporate responsibility shopping

inoculating us against reality

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.


  1. I entirely support your ideas on this, Jeremy. Ads do indeed normalise our unreflective, consumerist patterns of thinking and behaving, and insulate us from realities, being designed to stimulate imagined needs in order to make us buy. But the problem goes beyond ads. Take The Guardian newspaper, staunch supporter of 10:10, and yet there is a travel section for 7th November on skiing which carries on its front page the promise of “Yurt to yurt skiing…”, doubtless making deep contact with nature, but “in Idaho”. Inevitable flight details are to be found at the end of the article itself on p.7.

  2. Hmm, just because you’re staying in a yurt doesn’t make it an eco-holiday… and I agree, editorial policy doesn’t seem to stretch across departments. Even those newspapers that are particularly good on the environment still take advertising from all comers.

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