Advertising has traditionally promoted overconsumption. It’s time to change that.
By Hazel Henderson
After its successful rise over the past century, advertising is now a $500 billion plus worldwide industry – helping grow consumer markets for millions of products.
Yet, never before has advertising been such a target of critics and reformers. Rumblings of dissent were evident back in the 1950s with such bestsellers as Vance Packard’s The Hidden Persuaders and The Wastemakers, Karen Horney’s The Neurotic Personality of Our Time and the furor that shut down the use of subliminal advertising and psychological manipulation.
Environmentalists Take Aim At Mass Consumption
The latest burst of criticism came at Rio+20, the UN’s third Earth Summit, June 2012, where 193 countries came together and pledged in the outcome document, The Future We Want, to work together to accelerate the shift away from unsustainable business-as-usual industrialization based on fossil fuels and materialistic mass consumption. The declaration commits them to hasten the global transition to the cleaner, leaner green economy beyond consumerism.
Minimizing wasteful use of the Earth’s resources challenges advertisers, as does sharing access to its riches more democratically and moving from polluting fossil fuels to harvesting the free daily shower of photons from our Sun – the source of all life on Earth. Prominent in the Rio+20 sessions and in the proposals from many UN member countries were those banning advertising to children and curbing its growth, reducing or eliminating its tax-deductible status, with strict oversight on its truthfulness, preventing psychological manipulation, neuromarketing and wasteful consumption.
Ever since Rachel Carson published Silent Spring in 1962, consumers, environmentalists and change agents at Rachel’s Network have critiqued the flood of industrial chemicals, pesticides, herbicides, fungicides in our food, cosmetics, furnishings, cleaners and household supplies.
When The Limits to Growth appeared in 1972, the critiques broadened to the unsustainability of this mass-production-mass-consumption model of industrialism and ever-increasing GDP measured economic growth fueled by advertising and materialist consumerism.
The ensuing torrent of books, magazines and environmental studies targeted the economic textbooks. These enabled all this industrial mass consumption by encouraging business models based only on the narrow single bottom line. These allowed companies to “externalize” all the social and environmental costs from their balance sheets and to write off their growing advertising and marketing costs of doing business.
Advertising Evades Scrutiny
Yet, with this growing chorus of critiques of unsustainable economic growth, few environmental organizations have addressed advertising directly as a main driver of this unsustainability now worldwide.
This is due to advertising’s key role in financing commercial mass media, often determining not only the content of entertainment programming, but also the focus of news and public affairs, reporting on business and economics, stock markets, technology and science.
Inevitably, advertising came to dominate political campaigns, and the bonanza of cash provided to media outlets, public relations firms, spin doctors and lobbyists is distorting democratic processes and corrupting our politics.
Promoting Advertising For The Common Good
Grasping this nettle of powerful industries risks being labeled as against free speech by Supreme Court-designated “corporate persons.” Beyond the Rio+20 declaration’s commitments to ban and curb advertising and “greenwashing,” two new powerful critiques in America the Possible and Corporation 2020 have joined that of Susan Linn (Consuming Kids) and others, including the Green Economy Coalition.
Engaging advertising in a positive way is the EthicMark® Award for Advertising that Uplifts the Human Spirit and Society I founded in 2004 – to inspire the millions of creative people in this industry to fulfill advertising’s enormous potential as the world’s main “educator” -- for better or worse! Instead, advertising can inform people of our new condition as our 7 billion-member human family co-exists with 30 million other species in our planetary biosphere.
We at Ethical Markets, the World Business Academy and Notre Dame believe this is the new role of advertising and its future. Many inspiring ad campaigns have been nominated for the EthicaMark® – and the winners of our 6th Annual Awards will be announced at Sustainable Brands London, November 27-29, 2012.
Advertising has the potential to join the great transition to the green economy now underway and foster the growth of sustainable future prosperity.