Badvertising – polluting minds

Badvertising – polluting minds

The last time it was possible to get through the whole year without going into ecological debt – a bit like getting through the month without burning through your month’s pay – was in the 1970s.

Earth Overshoot Day, when collectively humanity goes into the environmental red, has been creeping ever earlier in the calendar – since 2001 it’s been moving forward at the rate of about three days per year.

In 2022 it fell on 28th July, meaning that, in effect, for the rest of the year irreplaceable ecological resources were being depleted.

Awareness of all these things, the fact that we are rapidly consuming our way over the precipice of a climate catastrophe cliff, plus the way that, to-date, the advertising industry has cleverly ducked most blame and responsibility for goading us to that edge, is why we’ve written the book Badvertising

An overwhelming scientific consensus tells us in one ear that a rapid, unprecedented and immediate reduction in the consumption of polluting products is needed, alongside an equally urgent shift away from polluting lifestyles. 

However, in the other ear advertising loudly tells those who can afford it to carry on just as we are, flying around the world on multiple holidays, buying huge SUVs, and consuming whatever we can.

Hyper-consumerism

From a historical perspective hyper-consumerism may be only a couple of generations old and still contained geographically to a minority of the world’s relatively wealthy populations. 

But it’s been around long enough to develop ingrained consumption habits and economic path dependency. 

Any sudden drop in over-consumption – such as during the pandemic – sends shock waves and quickly dispels self-glorifying de-regulated market myths, as the degree to which the public realm, public sector and state still underpin things is revealed. 

This is worth remembering whenever we consider a necessary change such as the re-regulation of harmful advertising, and when a politician decries that we are either powerless in the face of market forces, or should not ‘meddle’ in them. Quite the opposite, we the public have far more right and agency to do so than politics likes to admit. 

The need to reduce the advertising of harmful products had already been acknowledged officially, if briefly, by some within the UK government. 

The Behavioural Insights Team became known as the ‘nudge’ unit in honour of the popular economic notion that much could be done to achieve change with small actions that the public would barely notice, and then within a government department, 

It published a report – Net Zero: principles for successful behaviour change initiatives – that concluded, “We do not have time to nudge our way to net zero…”. 

Extraordinarily, the nudge unit was questioning its very purpose and existence, saying nudging was not enough to win a safe climate. 

It went on to say: “Looking at past government-led initiatives, significant societal behaviour changes related to, for instance, reductions in harm from smoking, increasing worker or motor vehicle safety or uptake of vaccinations have all involved taxes, bans, mandates and other regulatory measures beyond soft persuasion.”

Ban

The report was published as part of a bundle of policy documents surrounding the launch of the government’s landmark Net Zero Strategy, the grand plan setting out how it expected to achieve the new, more challenging climate change targets which it had just signed into law. 

But it seemed that some members of the conservative government were reading the ‘behaviour change’ part of the plan for the first time, and were horrified. 

Within hours the report was ‘unpublished’ and an official statement was issued disavowing its contents. The nudge unit itself was removed from Whitehall and put at a more safe distance from decision makers under the aegis of a research body. Its message, however, has since grown clearer and stronger. 

In 2023 in a new report on ‘How to Build a Net Zero Society’ from the relocated Behavioural Insights Team recommended the regulation of advertising and greenwash.

This new report said the UK should, “in addition to cracking down on all forms of greenwashing, follow other countries’ lead by restricting advertising of high-emitting sectors: explore the benefits of banning fossil fuels ads and, in time, advertising from firms within key sectors (e.g. air travel) who fail to meet decarbonisation targets compatible with UK carbon budgets.”

They are not the only ones. By then, in response to the kind of call being made by the Badvertising campaign, the UK House of Lords Environment Committee had already concluded, in a 2022 report into behaviour change, that the “Government should introduce measures to regulate advertising of high-carbon and environmentally damaging products.” 

Brain pollution

At this point you might be forgiven for thinking that this is a lot of fuss about something that could appear marginal, in comparison to, say, the actions of oil companies themselves. This needs rapid action too.

But advertising is more powerful in controlling our behaviour and creating a world in which climate killing pollution seems ‘normal’ than most are aware of.

If you think you are unaffected, nip onto YouTube and watch the ‘triple-dipped chicken experiment’ by young people’s campaign group Bite Back 2030. 

A group of UK teenagers were asked to come to a London restaurant, and they were invited to order a dish from a long list of options on the menu, but one of the options had already been comprehensively and subliminally advertised to them beforehand, on their journey and through their social media feeds. 

Every single person taking part ordered the same dish called ‘triple dipped chicken’, even though there were over 50 to choose from. They had been ‘primed’ unconsciously to make this choice by advertising. 

Or take the innovative study that sought to understand the power of brands to influence behaviour. Red Bull is a high-sugar and caffeine drink that health experts warn against consuming over a long-term. It markets itself through sponsorship of extreme and dangerous sports with the tagline ‘Red Bull gives you wings.’ 

Mind control

In research conducted in the United States, video gamers were given functionally identical cars within a game to drive – only the cars branding was different.

“What we see is that people racing the Red Bull car race faster and more aggressively, sometimes recklessly, and they either do very, very well or they push themselves too far and crash”, said the research author S. Adam Brasel, a assistant professor of marketing at Boston College. 

Crucially, the subjects in the study were not aware that they were behaving differently. The changes in behaviour resulted from ‘non-conscious brand priming’.

Like drivers under the influence of alcohol and overconfident of their abilities to be fully in control – we systematically underestimate the degree to which our choices and actions are controlled by advertising. 

“Scary as it may sound, if an ad does not modify the brains of the intended audience, then it has not worked,” is how Tim Ambler, Andreas Ioannides and Steven Rose, put it in their 2003 study called Brands on the Brain, that used neurological images of the brain to reveal impacts. 

Cordyceps

Ironically, politicians who baulk at the thought of public interventions, such as controls on products, labelling and ad bans, as too much ‘telling people what to do’, are blithely happy for people to swim in a sea of coercive commercial advertising. 

We think of advertising as a form of brain pollution whose controlling effects in encouraging ultimately self-destructive behaviour we’ve likened to working of the so-called zombie fungus, cordyceps, known for taking over the bodies and minds of insects in pursuit of its own interests. 

So, what should we do? Most basically we believe there needs to be a tobacco style ban on advertising high carbon products, services and lifestyles. Such a ban was a vital element of broader measures to reduce smoking. The air pollution from burning fossil fuels alone, before you even look at other global heating impacts, is thought to kill more people today than tobacco use.

But the current system of day-to-day advertising self-regulation, in which the industry marks its own homework, isn’t working and needs an overhaul. 

Scrutiny

It acts frequently too late, in many cases the damage has already been done and the few number of successful rulings can come up to a year later after  a misleading or false advert has been published. Too few misleading green claims are followed up. 

Of 503 environmental cases in 2022, 438 (or 87.1 per cent) were not investigated. Only 12 (or 2.4 per cent) led to formal action. The process is too unclear. 

There is a lack of transparency and consistency as to which ads are investigated and which are not. The self-regulator is too hands-tied, it cannot suspend ads pending investigation or to prevent future breaches.

The system is also too hopeful: and relies on the deterrent effect in which a few selective judgements are meant to prevent repeat offences. In practice this doesn’t work, with repeat offences in adverts by fossil fuel companies happening within weeks. 

Epidemic

The system is also too difficult and unequal, being largely reactive it relies on concerned groups and individuals having the time, knowledge and resources to submit detailed complaints. 

There is also too narrow a remit which is insufficient to address high-carbon advertising. Swathes of sponsorship material – advertising by another name – for example gets excluded, (and just look at how many fossil fuel companies, airlines and car makers get on TV by sponsoring sport) and advertisers and platforms that are not UK based  – even if easily viewed online in the UK – often dodge scrutiny.  

To put this right we need more effective rules and more empowered regulators. In addition to tobacco-style controls on high-carbon advertising, we need properly resourced regulators who are truly independent from industry. 

We need to close the loopholes that allow bad ads to slip through the net, and enforcement powers to suspend, fine and remove badverts. The system needs to be proactive too, rather than reactive. 

The good news is that we know ending harmful advertising works. For example, as we outline in the book, in US research exposure to TV advertising has been described as ‘perhaps the single largest factor’ in the ‘epidemic of obesity among children’. 

Richest

When Transport for London introduced a ban on junk food advertising, it was found that on average households consumed 1,000 calories fewer per week. 

There are many very difficult things that have to be done to prevent a climate catastrophe. But one of the simplest would be if we just stopped promoting our own destruction by ending adverts of the most polluting things. 

It would not end their sale, but it would stop the overconsumption that results purely from their marketing. 

And, as the climate scientist Kevin Anderson has pointed out, if the richest one in ten people on the planet just reduced consumption to the average EU level, it’d cut global emissions by 30 percent. If the ones with the biggest spades just stopped digging the climate hole deeper, that would be a good start.

The Authors

Andrew Simms is co-director of the New Weather Institute, co-founder of the Badvertising campaign, coordinator of the Rapid Transition Alliance, an author on new and green economics, and co-author of the original Green New Deal. Follow on X @AndrewSimms_uk or Mastodon. @andrewsimms@indieweb.social.

Leo Murray co-founded climate action charity Possible, where he is currently director of innovation, as well as noughties direct action pressure group Plane Stupid and pioneering solar rail enterprise Riding Sunbeams. Follow on X @crisortunity.

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