Is advertising killing us?
We know that mass consumption is driving climate and ecological breakdown and undermining our mental health. Contrary to current doctrine, consuming more is not an efficient or effective way to satisfy our needs or feed our long-term wellbeing. To fuel our consumption, we currently extract 90 billion tons of biomass, fossil energy, metals and minerals from the earth per year, and that number has tripled in the last few decades. If we continue down this trajectory, driven mainly by overconsumption in the global north, we’ll need three planets to sustain us.
Advertising normalises mass consumption
Why are we consuming at such a rate? One reason is the effectiveness of the advertising that we are all subjected to in our daily lives. It has an overall effect of not only makings products appealing, but also of normalising mass consumption. Ever since modern advertising started in the late 1900’s, it’s been an effective driver of making us all buy more stuff. Next time you pick up a newspaper or watch TV, really think about what you’re being told/sold. New luxury watch? You deserve it. A cheap holiday deal, including flights? Why not, you work hard for it. Meal deal chicken burger for lunch? Let’s do it.
None of these ads are greenwashing or nefarious, but they, and the rest of the advertising we are exposed to, help to create a culture of consumption that is leading us all to wreck the climate and the ecosystems, as well as our sense of social cohesion and mental health. And so, when we start to talk about the breakdown of our environmental and social systems and still try to justify material acquisition, we hit a wall. Messages on indiscriminate consumption and perpetual growth cannot be congruent with messages on impending climate or ecological disaster. It just doesn’t add up. The top 10% of the global north account for more emissions than the poorest 50% of the global population. We are consuming our way to destruction and taking everyone else along for the ride. So, exactly how much of this is attributed to advertising?
Current industry research shows that emissions from advertising are responsible for influencing around one-third of an individual’s carbon footprint in the UK. Other research sets this amount at 50%. For all this extra consumption, we need more fossil fuels, to mine, make, ship, consume and chuck. Adverting creates the desire and need for all this stuff, which places ever-increasing demands on dwindling and finite resources and is shown to directly reduce our well-being and undermine our sense of worth.
The recent IPCC summary report in March of this year zoned in on the power of mediums like advertising: “Many options are available for reducing emission-intensive consumption, including through behavioural and lifestyle changes.” The key here is ‘emission intensive consumption’, which means reducing stuff like flights, fast fashion, and meat consumption, three key drivers of climate change and biodiversity loss. Given the gravity of the climate crisis, how can the advertising sector continue to use its influence to increase consumption, when what we need to do is the very opposite?
Is there still room for advertising? Yes, but only for products and services that are aligned with collective long-term well-being. We need advertising, as part of the rich array of marketing tools, to help transition people from indiscriminate excessive consumption and throw-away culture, towards buying what makes our lives better and will last much longer. We need to stop advertising carbon-neutral jeans for £19.99, or thinking that flying is fine as long as the advert says it’s offset but rather understand that goods should be made to last and products made circular as well as be rid of planned obsolescence. We need to seriously consider whether we should put our talents and energy into selling private jets and SUVs rather than wind turbines and solar panels. There is a way forward to promote the things that really underpin a good life and get rid of what doesn’t.
Advertising Fossil Fuels
But there is another elephant-shaped problem in the room. Aside from advertising ‘stuff’ we also need to talk about advertising fossil fuels specifically. 75% of global emissions come from burning fossil fuels and it’s estimated that 75% of advertising agencies in the UK have at least one fossil fuel client in their portfolio. Currently, the advertising sector is, to an extent funded by fossil fuel clients. How can this continue, given the serious warning of the IPCC and impending climate doom? Change is coming. The French government has now banned fossil fuel advertising after a citizens' assembly of 150 people demanded it. Amsterdam is following suit, but also adding a ban on advertising aviation. Sydney has also banned ads for fossil fuels in their city after an open letter from 200 healthcare professionals stating the devastating issues burning fossil fuels creates. Many groups are now campaigning successfully to rid their towns and cities of billboard advertising in general.
Some compare the advertising of the tobacco industry to that of fossil fuels. It took 40 years to eventually ban smoking in 2007 when a US judge deemed the advertising of these products as deceptive and ‘defrauding customers’. But four decades of delay allowed revenues to flow and millions of people to die. Sound familiar? The oil and gas industry has deflected and delayed the issues of emissions for over 80 years, all while their revenues in the billions are still flowing and global temperatures are still rising.
Time for Change
It's time this stopped - and time we all made our voices loud and clear on this. Transition isn’t good enough. We need transformation and that requires a cliff-edge moment. We need to stop fooling ourselves that a gradual transition is good enough. We need to leave ALL remaining fossil fuels in the ground even if we’re going to keep to 2 degrees of warming. And we need to stop advertising fossil fuel companies' wares.
Can the advertising sector change? Yes, there are many good people in the sector that are pushing for change from the inside, looking at how they can use their creativity to change the narrative and educate the sector on a new version of success. Will advertising be forced to change? Potentially. The recent Climate Change Committee report from the House of Lords stated that “if the signal is sent from government and experts that consumer behaviour change is key to achieving net zero, the advertising industry will require greater regulatory scrutiny in future”.
More and more, investors, companies, government and society use ‘ESG’ to ask businesses the question: “What’s the material risk of what you are doing” – and not just what you do within your walls…? It is increasingly risky to fudge the answer in a washed-out annual report. The legislation forcing reporting, and action, to prove that they are operating within safe and ethical thresholds is mounting and litigation from all directions where this isn’t meeting either the law or the thresholds is surging.
What does this mean for you, reading this article? What can you do to buy and consume based on your actual well-being rather than based on what’s being advertised to you? If you work in the advertising sector, how can you use your influence to change the advertising industry and its impact? What can we all do to push our governments to make rulings that support the systemic change in advertising that’s needed? Each of us has the power to create change.
Let’s finish with a quote from Dr. Katherine Hayhoe, a Canadian NASA scientist who said:
"The world has changed before and, when it did, it wasn’t because a president, a prime minister, a CEO or a celebrity decided it had to. Change didn’t begin with the King of England deciding to end slavery or the President of the United States giving women the vote or the National Party of South Africa opting to end apartheid. It began when ordinary people, people of no particular power, wealth, or fame, decided that the world could and should be different.”
illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability and Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.
- The World Counts
- UNEP Press Release 2016
- One Planet Network 2023 and Global Footprint Network
- Bruille, 2007, Advertising, Individual Consumption Levels, and the Natural Environment, 1900–2000
- History of Advertising
- UN, Consumption
- PD’s Advertised Emissions Reports
- Kasser, 2021 Badvertising, Advertising and Demand
- Hickel, Degrowth
- Dimofte et al 2015 A social identity perspective on aspirational advertising: Implicit threats to collective self-esteem and strategies to overcome them
- Guardian ‘Eco-conscious’ Brands
- BA Carbon Neutral Flight
- UN, Causes of Climate Change
- Euro News France bans Fossil Fuel Ads
- Euro News Amsterdam bans FF and Aviation
- Climate News Australia
- Ad Free Cities
- Energy Monitor Big Oil Revenues
- Guardian Exxon Predictions
- Change the Brief
- Politico 2021
- Euracitv 2023 - Ecocide list of Enviro Crimes
- Guardian March 2023
- Guardian Feb 2023 Shell directors personally sued
- Katherine Hayhoe
About the authors
Victoria Harvey is co-founder of Clima. She works as an advisor to the advertising and production sector on low carbon methodologies as well as working on a PhD at UEA on climate change and advertising.