Confronting Advertising: the elephant in the bus shelter

This is an edited version of a presentation to the UNSW / Australian Earth Laws Alliance conference, Building the New Economy, Sydney, August 15. It is also the first stage in a larger research paper being prepared for the Green Institute. Comment, feedback and ideas are welcome.


Confronting Advertising: The elephant in the bus shelter

Here is how Nancy Shaley, president of the Shaley Agency, describes her profession: “Advertising at its best is making people feel that, without their product, you’re a loser.” ((As quoted in Tim Kasser, The High Price of Materialism, MIT Press, 2002.))

Jonathan Trimble, chief executive of ad agency 18 Feet & Rising, says: “Of course advertising makes us unhappy. There’s too much of it; we can’t screen it out and its premise is to promote extrinsic value – happiness being intrinsic.”

And Omaid Hiwaizi, planning director of SapientNitro, told advertising industry magazine Campaign Live, that “the true essence of advertising is to make you want more. It is designed to make you restless, leaving little room for contentment.”

These are just some of the insights the advertising industry has into its own behaviour and impact. But wait – there’s more!

Advertising is a lynchpin – and a weak spot – in our growth-based work/produce/consume system. It is a key point in the corporate takeover of democracy. It contributes to the alienation that is infecting our society, causing so many ills.

And by presenting and buttressing corporate capitalist values, by moulding cultural norms in their image, by conditioning us to behave in manners that reflect those values and norms, advertising acts as the public credo for the consumerist economy. It indoctrinates us into the world’s first major religion that deems selfishness a moral imperative.

Put all this together and advertising becomes a vital point of strategic intervention.

Crafting a new economy that cares for people and the planet, as opposed to a corporatocracy, must tackle advertising.

I’m going to traverse each of these points before setting out a practical agenda for how to work to limit advertising through political, corporate and grassroots campaigns.

Let’s look at the economic system first.

The critical question of consumer capitalist economies is how to get people to buy more, when we already have more than we need, when the great majority of us have more than the vast bulk of humanity has ever had before.

This is the primary challenge of our growth-based, consumer confidence obsessed, GDP-focused system. It exercises not just business leaders, but the politicians who have taken it on as their philosophy, such as George W Bush declaring after the September 11 terrorist attacks that it was the patriotic duty of American citizens to go out and shop. It is the question at the heart of the work to consume / work to produce goods to consume / consume so that we may continue to produce goods to consume cycle. That cycle collapses if people feel they already have enough.

And the answer is advertising.

Rosa Luxemburg pointed out 100 years ago that, as markets saturate, capitalist growth economies need to colonise ever more lands and peoples, not just for raw materials and cheap labour, but as new markets for what they produce. When there are no more lands and peoples to colonise, advertising replaces tall ships as the vehicle for colonising new markets, creating demand where none existed. And, as markets have continued to saturate, the encroachment and colonisation of advertising has radically increased.

advertising replaces tall ships as the vehicle for colonising new markets

We have ever more sophisticated ads filling not just our newspapers, magazines and broadcast media, but our bus shelters, building walls and other public spaces, and our phone screens and other private spaces. We have televisions screening ads with noisy audio on train platforms, we have autoplay ads on our Facebook streams, we have advertising sponsorships for IT goods and sporting equipment in schools, we have ads on our clothes, on our cars, written in our skies, tattooed on our skins. Tellingly for me, as a student of history, where in eras past we named our buildings, arenas and landmarks for kings, generals or gods, such as the Queen Victoria Building or the Field of Mars in ancient Rome, we now name them for private companies: the ANZ building, the Optus Arena, Telstra Tower.

Private companies are our new gods, and advertising is their credo. They are our new colonising generals, and advertising is their tall ships. In a very real sense, as it encroaches ever further on our lives, advertising is the latest enclosure of the commons, taking previously public space and allocating it to private interests, and enslaving those who used that public space to those private interests.

In a system whose central tenet is continual growth, advertising, designed as Omaid Hiwaizi tells us to make us want more, is its lynchpin.

If we want to change this system – as we must – we have to pull out this pin. But it is pretty deeply embedded, including in our democratic system.

Which leads us to the next question: government for whom?

Remember what President Bush said after September 11 about it being Americans’ patriotic duty to go out and shop? It’s not just the political right – it goes across the political spectrum. I don’t think it’s particularly radical to note that governments of most hues now see their primary role as to manage the continuation of the current system; to enable corporations to increase their markets; to grow the economy. And advertising is at the heart of this in two key ways.

Billboard-Message1The first is access to public space. By granting private companies licence to advertise on our streets, in and on public transport, on one of our two public broadcasters, governments have enabled the latest enclosure of the commons and facilitated the growing dominance of advertising – and private corporate interests – in our lives. Indeed, in an indication of the balance of power between governments and private corporations, SBS, our public transport systems and various local governments have allowed themselves to be put in a position where they would be bankrupted if they attempted to roll back or restrict advertising. Government decisions in the form of both regulation and funding cuts have directly led to this situation.

On the other side of the ledger is the tax system. Most people don’t realise that expenditure on advertising, as a ‘legitimate business expense’, is 100% tax deductible. Where we charge businesses to employ people, through payroll taxes, we effectively pay them to advertise, to sell us things we don’t need, to condition us to buy more and more.

I’ve been trying to find out the quantum of this, and it’s not easy as it isn’t broken out in standard budget or tax office reporting. But we can do back-of-the-envelope calculations. According to ZenithOptimedia as reported in Fairfax in January, total Australian advertising industry revenue – covering both creative and ad buy – “is predicted to hit just over $13.5 billion” in 2016, up from $13.2 billion in 2015. If we take that at face value and apply the full 30% corporate tax rate, we’d get a figure of around $4 billion in foregone tax revenue this year and rising.

I emphasise, this figure should be treated with caution, but it is indicative of the extent of the corporate takeover of democracy that a figure of this magnitude is not even accorded the interest of a break-out in tax office figures.

If this little fact makes you feel alienated from democracy, this is neither unusual nor accidental. Alienation is both an incidental and deliberate result of an omnipresent advertising industry.

One of the early 20th century pioneers of marketing psychology was Edward Bernays, a nephew and keen student of Sigmund Freud. In his book, entitled Propaganda, he wrote approvingly of the role of advertising in manipulating public opinion to drive consumption as a mechanism for keeping a population “more docile and less subversive”, more easily governable.  ((Neal Lawson, All Consuming, Penguin, 2009, pp.81-82.))

Alienation is both an incidental and deliberate result of an omnipresent advertising industry.

This idea, as well as the insights into the role of psychology in advertising, were taken up with gusto by the Mont Pelerin society post-war, as they began their process of deliberately shaping a neoliberal political consensus in which the freedom of the market takes precedence over all, including democratic freedoms.

Whether or not it is a deliberate strategy by an advertising-industrial complex, there is abundant evidence – and has been for decades – that alienation and discontent is the outcome of a world filled with advertising.

As long ago as 1951, Marshall McLuhan wrote in The Mechanical Bride that “a helpless state engendered by prolonged mental rutting is the effect of many ads”. ((Marshall McLuhan, The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man, Beacon Press, 1961, p.v.))  More recently, former ad executive Greg Foyster described the result of advertising as a “culture of discontent”.

busyMuch of the in depth psychological research backing up these conclusions has been collated by Tim Kasser in his book, The High Price of Materialism. Kasser’s own research, and that of the many others he cites, show a clear link between exposure to advertising and increased materialism, which in turn is linked to higher rates of depression, interpersonal violence and antisocial behaviour. Consumer culture promoted by advertising, Kasser says, “breeds a narcissistic personality”. ((Tim Kasser, The High Price of Materialism, MIT Press, 2002.))

One of the brains behind the Common Cause framework, Kasser describes how advertising emphasises extrinsic values such as wealth and status. It has been repeatedly demonstrated, by Kasser and others, that the more we are exposed to such extrinsic values, the more they suppress intrinsic values that include care for others, sense of community, and care for the environment – values that are critical for building the new economy we’re talking about at this conference.

Importantly, this psychological effect takes place regardless of the attention paid to the ads and regardless of the values directly expressed by the ads.

Some of Kasser’s colleagues, in an early report for Common Cause entitled Think of Me as Evil, write that simply seeing ads presenting extrinsic values is a form of social modelling of these values, eroding support for social and environmental action. And even ads which express intrinsic values such as positive community life or love of nature are likely to end up activating extrinsic values when their final message is that those values are only attainable through purchase of a particular product or experience:

“Advertising that seeks to sell a product through appeals to intrinsic values—for example, promoting a fast-food chain by claiming that it will improve the quality of family life — risks reinforcing the perception that intrinsic values can be meaningfully pursued through the purchase of particular products. Where a customer feels, on purchasing this product, that it falls short in expressing these values, this experience may serve to erode a person’s future commitment to pursuing these intrinsic values.”

But we can ignore ads, can’t we? We can choose not to look, choose not to read or listen. We can mute them, or even block them.

Well, yes, but their very ubiquity makes the individual ads and their content less relevant.

Richard Pollay, in an article entitled The Distorted Mirror: Reflections on the Unintended Consequences of Advertising, writes that

“The proliferation and the intrusion of various media into the everyday lives of the citizenry make advertising environmental in nature, persistently encountered, and involuntarily experienced by the entire population. It surrounds us no matter where we turn intruding into our communication media, our streets, and our very homes.” ((Richard Pollay “The distorted mirror: Reflections on the unintended consequences of advertising”, Journal of Marketing, 50, 1986, 18–36.))

One company, Capital Outdoor, proudly declare of their product: “Outdoor advertising… incorporates your targeted branding message into the everyday landscape of commuters and becomes part of the very fabric of the living and working environment where it is placed.”

John Sherry extends this concept, discussing how omnipresent ads condition us to be good consumers, organising “experience through the shaping and reflecting of our sense of reality”. ((John Sherry “Advertising as a cultural system.” Marketing and semiotics: New directions in the study of signs for sale (1987): 441-461.))

This is a deliberate and long term strategy to mould cultural norms around consumerism. In 1955, US retail analyst Victor Lebow wrote in the Journal of Retailing: “Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfactions, our ego satisfactions, in consumption.”

Advertising, therefore, is designed to condition us to want more. It conditions us deeply, emotionally, chemically.

In her PhD thesis on advertising, Sally Ruth Wengrover discusses the fact that, when we have an unfulfilled need, our brains release dynorphin, which makes us uncomfortable, restless and irritable. When we fulfill the need, our brains immediately release dopamine, making us satisfied. This is a chemically addictive process and ubiquitous advertising, continually creating unfulfilled needs, continually feeds our addiction.

Through these physical, financial, psychological, emotional and chemical processes, advertising keeps us as willing participants in our own oppression, in our own enslavement to the economic system.

So advertising is clearly a lynchpin in the existing economy. But right up top I mentioned that I see it also as a weakspot. This is a piece of good news we should note before we look at how to pull out the pin: advertising is unpopular.

According to the most recent Grey’s Advertising study, 79% of Australians agree with the statement that there is too much advertising and 73% believe that advertising can’t be trusted. Previous studies have found that 8 out of 10 Australians feel that advertising bombards them with useless information, two thirds think it is out of touch with economic realities and over 80% feel that it demonstrates an unrealistic depiction of Australia’s homes and home life.

Another useful indicator is the widespread use of ad-blockers, by far the most popular browser add-ons. According to one study, 45% of Britons and 55% of Americans use ad-blockers on computers, mobiles and tablets.

Finally, a survey of the people of Sao Paolo after the local government introduced a ban on outdoor advertising found that 70% viewed the step as beneficial.

Which brings us to the exciting part – if we agree that advertising is a critical point of intervention in building the new economy, an unpopular weak spot, ripe for the picking, with potentially huge strategic flow-on effects, what do we do about it?

I envisage a fantastic, cross-organisational, multi-faceted campaign, taking on advertising at various levels and using various distributed tactics, from federal government lobbying to corporate campaigning to legal strategies to grassroots civil disobedience.

One obvious focus is to remove the tax deduction for advertising. With a multi-pronged approach involving articulating the social damage caused by advertising, highlighting the equity arguments against such a tax break for corporations, proposing better use for the funds (such as investment in education, sports, arts and others that currently receive subsidised sponsorships), and tying in with existing campaigns against political donations and other corporate-government links, this would help disentangle the web of money and influence that keeps the current economy in place.

reclaiming public space, reclaiming the commons

A second focus is on reclaiming public space, reclaiming the commons. There are a few approaches to this which I believe are all valid and useful.

Firstly, we can campaign on local governments to declare ad free zones in the style of Sao Paolo and Grenoble. Canberra is well ahead of other Australian cities on this, with extremely limited billboard advertising, but even there, ads are encroaching and need to be pushed back.

An important facet of this is a campaign on public transport corporations, to wind back the blanket advertising in and on buses, trams and trains and their stations. With ads now covering entire vehicles, and the shift from images to large televisions with audio, public transport advertising is now so intrusive as to be impossible to ignore. Perhaps a targeted push to wind back the excesses of this expansion would be a useful start.


Public space and public transport advertising provide an excellent opportunity for grassroots activism, as well. On the safe and legal side is a fun, engaging campaign such as CATS – the Citizens’ Advertising Takeover Service, launched last year in the UK. CATS effectively crowd fund to buy advertising space and replace it with pictures of cats. Simple and effective. Alternatively, or additionally, activists can be inspired by the civil disobedience campaigns of BUGA-UP – Billboard Utilising Graffitists Against Unhealthy Promotions. From the late 70s into the 90s, this loose group of activists altered billboards advertising tobacco and alcohol to attack the companies and their products and attempt to force a ban on advertising them. It worked, brilliantly, alongside an array of other campaign tactics.

Another important angle on the campaign is through child welfare. Norway, Sweden, Greece and Quebec all have complete or partial bans on advertising targeting children based on the assumption that, while adults are able to critique ads and make our own decisions, children are more vulnerable to the deep psychological impacts of advertising. This approach could be very powerful in terms of exposing quite how damaging advertising is to all of us.

One of the most difficult aspects of any campaign will be figuring out how to deal with the explosion in online advertising. As more and more of our private and professional lives have moved into the online space, so has advertising, and it has become increasingly sophisticated. Targeting based on search history, autoplay videos and native advertising (the online equivalent of cash for comment) are intrusive, sometimes to the point of stalkerish. With the digital world also making it harder for many of us – from journalists to musicians – to make an income, advertising becomes enormously attractive to content producers. Perhaps the first thing we need to do to tackle online ads, alongside promoting adblock and similar options, is to work creatively across the whole new economy movement to find income stream alternatives to ads. Linking this campaign directly with those working towards a universal basic income, for example, is one idea.

Perhaps the most intriguing option I’ve come across is the idea of a legal strategy inspired by tobacco and fossil fuel litigation. The idea would be to present ads as “pollution”, and the companies which produce them as fully aware of the harmful effects of what they are doing. The quotes I started this paper with show that many in the industry certainly are fully aware. This is a long term project, but the process of thinking it through and beginning to accumulate evidence would be a tremendously useful addition to each of the campaign aspects I’ve just taken you through.

I want to leave you with how Adbusters describe their mission in the hope that it will help inspire you to join them and me in this task. Their slogan is “fighting back against the hostile takeover of our psychological, physical and cultural environments by commercial forces.”

Let’s do it!