Do we need advertising?
Today I stumbled upon an amusing blog called ‘The Ad Contrarian’ written by an experienced advertising executive, Bob Hoffman, who has a distinctive and sharp sense of humour, for instance:
“As an advertising medium, the web is like communism. It’s never very good right now, but it’s always going to be great some day.”
“Brand studies last for months, cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, and generally have less impact on business than cleaning the drapes.”
“In the entire history of civilization, nothing good ever happened to a teenager after midnight.”
I have no expertise to judge whether Hoffman’s views are correct, but it’s a definitely a fun read, and got me thinking about what, if anything I know about advertising.
The first thing that came to mind was The Public Interest Research Centre ( linked to Common Cause) report: “Think of me as Evil – Opening the Ethical Debates in Advertising” which sounds radical, but has credible endorsements from various luminaries, including celebrated Oxford Historian, Avner Offer: ”Despite its alarmist title, this is a careful evaluation of the costs and benefits of advertising. It makes a good case, on economic, social, and cultural grounds, for respite from the all-pervasive advocacy of consumerism.”
That last point is central. Advertising fuels consumerism. The traditional social rationale for advertising was about information provision at a time when people genuinely didn’t know, for instance, that a certain toothpaste had a certain dental benefit. Originally, it was not supposed to be about shaping preferences or creating desires.
If you think consumerism is broadly a benign and positive thing, creating jobs and growth and (this is where the case looks far from convincing) happiness, there is no real problem, but if you think that consumerism doesn’t really do much for wellbeing and that the social and environmental harm caused by excessive consumerism is a real and present issue that needs to be addressed, as I do, the idea that advertising is at least part of the problem quickly comes to mind.
Kate Raworth’s work on Doughnut economics is a good way to think about what ‘excessive’ might mean in this context. We have planetary limits and social limits that represent a boundary to consumption-led economic growth beyond which we shouldn’t go. There are various images of this ‘doughnut’ but for illustration it looks something like this:
Now the question is whether advertisers can ever realistically be expected to care about the social and planetary boundaries when their bottom line effectively forces them to give them less importance than driving up consumption.
This is a really difficult issue, because the drive for macroeconomic growth is real, as is the personal desire to better one’s lot, and in some ways advertising does help at these levels. There have been several RSA events to explore this issue, including “Advertising in Society: What’s the deal?” and The Mad Men we Love to Hate.
So not all advertising is bad, of course, and it is hard to imagine a world without it…but let’s just try for a second, as a though experiment: what would a world without advertisements look like? We would have to pay much more for most forms of media that rely on advertising revenue, or perhaps there would just be less media to go round….but would we really be less informed? These days it is not difficult to go online and find, for free, product information and comparisons to help you make your decision.
So here’s the question: given that advertising is by no means entirely benign, what positive value does it have that we would regret losing if it wasn’t there?