business corporate responsibility shopping

Reducing the negative impact of advertising

In yesterday’s post, I looked at a recent report that analyses the role of advertising in shaping cultural values. It concludes that advertising is something of a negative force, and that “the potential impacts of advertising should be of pressing concern to a wide range of third sector organisations—irrespective of whether they are working on poverty, climate change, child deprivation and neglect, abuse of human rights, ecological degradation, physical and mental ill health, or failure to place proper value on non-human life.”

I’m working on most of those things, so what can be done about advertising? Here are a few approaches.

Banning advertising to children
Psychologists have shown that children are particularly susceptible to advertising, and that below the age of 12, they are unable to tell when
someone is trying to sell something to them. If that’s true, then this is a human rights issue – if children don’t recognise the concept of marketing, then they are unequipped to deal with the information presented to them. This makes all advertising to children exploitative, regardless of the merits of the product itself.

Children should not be seen as consumers, and research has linked the commercialisation of childhood with low self-esteem, unhappiness, bullying and premature sexualisation. The latter has been something of a crusade for David Cameron, so there is hope that his interest will lead to action if he isn’t swayed by the advertising lobby. He shouldn’t be afraid of getting stuck in: a survey for the Children’s Society shows there is considerable concern about these issues, and there is broad support for tighter regulations on advertising to children. Sweden has taken the step of banning all advertising to children, and we should do the same.

Protecting public space
Public space belongs to all of us. Our streets are a commons, and they should be protected from ‘visual pollution’. Not just because visual clutter is aesthetically unappealing, but because it’s a matter of freedom. If I’m watching a TV programme, I accept that the ad breaks are part of the deal. If I’m on Facebook, I recognise that those ads in the sidebar are how the company makes its money, rather than charging me to use their service. If I’m walking down the street however, that’s different. As the authors of The Advertising Effect (pdf) put it, “people should have the freedom to choose when they are exposed to advertising: when to look at product information and when not to.”

Empty billboard, Sao Paulo

There is precedent for this. As I’ve written about before, Sao Paulo banned billboards and outdoor advertising in 2007. I don’t know if the policy still stands, but excepting the ad agencies, it was popular at the time. Britain doesn’t have billboards on its motorways, which I’m grateful for. (The ones you occasionally see are on old farm trailers, evading the law by being mobile). Many US states or towns ban billboards, Beijing has restrictions on size and placement, and this year the mayor of Moscow vowed to reduce outdoor advertising by 20% by 2013.

PS. If you want to see what London would look like with no commercial messages at all, check out the art of Gregor Graf.

Taxes on advertising
Given that advertising has detrimental effects on society, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to tax it appropriately. Cigarettes and alcohol are taxed and rates that reflect their damage to society and the cost to the NHS in picking up the pieces. Shouldn’t the same principle apply? It shouldn’t be a flat rate or it would squeeze out non-profit advertisers, but taxes ought to be used to subsidise things we want more of and to discourage things we want less of. So perhaps there could be a sliding scale of taxation – higher prices for those who want to advertise unhealthy or environmentally destructive consumption (cars, fast food) and lower rates for socially beneficial subjects (charities, government services, awareness raising campaigns).

Ad agency accountability
Behind most of the high-profile adverts that we see are agencies that develop and create the campaigns. We’re aware of some these, Saatchi and Saatchi or Ogilvy for example, but we generally don’t know who’s behind any given campaign unless we take the time to look into it. Adverts have considerable power to influence society’s norms and values, but the companies behind them are completely unaccountable. The Compass think-tank believes that ad agencies should have their own logo and name on the ads that they create, as a measure of accountability.

Compass also suggests an alternative way of taxing advertising, through a time and resources levy. Some of society’s most creative minds work for advertising agencies, including writers, designers, artists and film-makers. The world of advertising is a vibrant source of new ideas and innovative visual arts in particular. So what if those agencies were obliged to offer a certain percentage of their time to good causes for free, and put that creativity to positive use? Many agencies already do this of course, and the magazine Adbusters was founded by socially conscious designers using their spare time to atone for the sins of their day-jobs.

Restrict new forms of advertising
Clamping down on current forms of advertising is difficult, but we can halt the creep of advertising. I know I’m always spotting adverts in new places – moving screens on the tube, bus stop ads that talk or play tunes, ad screens in the back of taxis. Youtube videos now have adverts that pop up across the video. They didn’t used to be there.

While some of these are just elaborations on existing ad space, some of them are very invasive. It’s not really possible to put new forms of advertising to public consultation ahead of time, so what’s needed is a regulator that is able to move fast and decisively. In Britain the advertising industry regulates itself through the Advertising Standards Authority, but their remit is limited and they do not carry the force of law. They also move rather slow – they only started supervising advertising on the internet in March this year. Perhaps the ASA should be toughened up a little, or maybe the government needs to work more closely with them.


No doubt there are bigger things that could be done, and probably should be done, but all of those are politically possible and offer a starting point. Anyone got any other suggestions on how we reduce the negative impacts of advertising?


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    April Brown

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