1. In a free society we should be able to decide when and where we are subjected to advertising. If we as individuals decide to read a magazine or watch a commercial TV channel then we are accepting the adverts that come with them. However, when we walk outside our front door why should we be bombarded with brand images and slogans we never choose to see, on billboards, trains, the tube, bus shelters, buses and taxis, to name just a few? In today’s commercialised world we cannot opt out or choose to look the other way because nearly everywhere you look there is an advert.
It is time to take back our streets, towns and cities as places to be citizens rather than just consumers. So the report calls for a ban on all advertising in public spaces, a limit to be placed on shopfront marketing, a ban on buzz marketing (public viral marketing techniques that are contrived to look authentic) and continuing restrictions on product placement on television. 2. The advertising industry increasingly uses children’s vulnerability to its persuasive powers to unlock their parents’ purse strings.
Studies show that children under 12 do not have the cognitive ability to know whether they are being sold to, let alone make decisions on what they like, or choose to ignore the marketing altogether. The government recently called for the provision of improved education for children to deal with the growth in adverts they face. But as this report shows, many of these adverts are aimed at securing an emotional rather a rational response and therefore cannot be filtered out through education alone.
The leader of the Conservative party, David Cameron, has also recognised this and recently called for shops to stop selling sexualised products to younger children – recognising that what is good for business is not always good for society. So the report calls for a ban on all television advertising to children under the age of 12. It also calls for an open debate on a ban on all alcohol marketing, recognising that teenage alcoholism can have a damaging effect on young people’s health.
Banning advertising of alcohol could help reduce this. The government should follow the example now set by Spain, which outlaws ‘cult of the body’ adverts before the watershed; these are linked to the rise in anorexia and bulimia in young people. 3. Third, the advertising industry is increasingly working online and capturing the Internet by surveying and storing every click of information we make. This information is then used to target adverts directly at us.
The Internet should be a socially valued ‘common good’ and its commercialisation for private gain should be resisted. So the report calls for Ofcom to review introducing new regulations to limit the amount of information being gathered, stored and used without our expressed permission. 4. Excessive advertising turns a never ending series of new needs into new wants, and crowds out the space for other visions of the good society, where time and relationships matter more than what we buy.
Advertising encourages us to run ever faster on the treadmill of modern consumer life; in so doing it contributes to growing consumer debt, a number of social problems which this report discusses, and to the very real prospect of climate change beyond our ability to manage. So the report calls for a tax on all advertising that encourages greater consumption to limit its scope and slow the pace of growth for the good of society and the future of the planet. 5.
In recognition of the enormous creative skills in the industry and the potential to use their powers of persuasion for good social and environmental causes, and not just profit, the report calls for a time and resources levy to be placed on the advertising companies themselves, so that a small percentage of their workers’ time is used for constructive social purposes – not always for commercial interests. People could then be better persuaded to recycle, donate or volunteer. 6. This report argues that the industry should be held to account for the adverts it creates.
Companies are responsible for the products they make and we believe that advertising should be no exception. So we are calling for regulations to stipulate that advertising 6 | The advertising effect agencies have their name or logo on all the adverts they are responsible for creating. Transparency is important; advertising agencies should be recognised for their contribution to good causes as well as held to account for any work deemed to be harmful. 7. The bulk of advertising is still ‘regulated’ voluntarily through the Advertising Standards Authority.
Given the importance of the industry and its reach and impact on so much of our lives, this is no longer acceptable. This report calls for the Advertising Standards Authority to be put on a statutory basis, setting out criteria on what types of adverts are unacceptable. It should: strengthen local authorities’ powers to restrict outdoor advertising introduce in some circumstances a right of reply by charities etc to claims made in TV advertising ban advertising on mobile phones. These suggestions are not exclusive but they are a contribution to the necessary debate on the role
of advertising. This report argues that we must now take steps to rebalance the relationship between the needs of society and the demands of the market. In many ways the cultural signals we send out are more important than the laws that governments pass; a debate about advertising and the demand to restrict its influence demonstrates what kind of ‘good society’ we want to live in: one where more and more things are only valued because they can be bought or one where time, sustainability, caring and other pleasures have at least some space to flourish?
We are still coming out of the biggest economic crisis since the 1930s; the advertising industry and the big corporations they serve want not just to get us back on the treadmill of consumption as soon as possible, but for us to buy more than ever, using new techniques, technology and science. This puts us at a turning point: we either go back to where we left off on the route to the world of consumption or we decide to live a better and more balanced life in which we take more collective and democratic control over the world and in particular the market, which should exist to serve our interests – rather than us serving those of the market.
To do that we must address the advertising effect. 7 Introduction: advertising and the good society During one day, on average, we will see over 3,500 brand images: on bus stops and buses; on trains and in tube stations; on taxis and inside taxis; on railway station name boards where we are welcomed not simply to a town or city but to the home of some estate agent or local solicitor; on shop windows; on billboards; on Internet pop-up ads and PC games; on product placements at the cinema; and through the sponsorship of sporting and cultural events and arenas like the O2 and the Emirates.
The world it seems is becoming a vast advertising hoarding to sell us more stuff. But in many ways we are just at the forefront of this advertising, persuasion and selling revolution. Not content with advertising on tube trains and in underground ticket halls and walkways, Coca-Cola is now sponsoring the 33 busking pitches on London Underground and over the new year of 2009/10 went even further by trying to persuade buskers to play their advertising theme. With 3. 5 million people using the tube each day who could hear their Christmas jingle, it’s an obvious step for Coca-Cola, but is it good for us?
The buskers’ pitches now match the video walls of films and images that move up the escalator as you do. Out on the street you might wonder why your mobile is buzzing. It could be because the shop windows you walk past are transmitting messages via Bluetooth to tell you about their latest in-store deals. You walk into a bar for a drink and wonder why a group of good looking young people at the bar is talking so loudly about a particular drink? Could they be part of the buzz marketing trend of paid for advocates acting as ‘ordinary people’ who are blurring the lines of normal life and solicitation?
If you make it to the sanctuary of your own home surely there you will be free from advertising? But only if you don’t switch on the television or go on the Internet. ITV is lobbying hard for product placement on programmes and the government has indicated that, with some exceptions, it can have its way. The pharmaceutical companies would like the same access to our minds and wallets as they get in the USA, with adverts on television for prescription drugs. The advertising focus is growing on the Internet, too. Britain has become the first major economy where advertisers spend more on the Internet than they do on TV: 23.
5 per cent in the first half of 2009 compared with 21. 9 per cent on television. 2 But why, when you are searching online, are you increasingly bombarded with adverts that seem tailor-made for you? It is because they are tailormade for you. Google and other search engines now collect data on what you search for so that they can direct messages from their clients which you are more likely to respond to. Car enthusiasts get adverts on cars; music aficionados get helpful suggestions on gigs and new DVDs, and children get information about the latest toys.
Online advertising is virtually unregulated, as brands ‘friend’ individuals through social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace – this is the new frontier of advertising and it is outpacing regulation. Advertisers are now designing TV adverts to be watched in fast forward, to make sure modern technology doesn’t limit their influence. Meanwhile neurologists are working out what images will trigger the buy button in our brains. In the studies, machines are being used to shed light on brain mechanisms that play a central role in consumer behaviour: circuits that underlie reward, decision making, motivation, emotions and the senses of self.
An article in the New York Times by Sandra Blakeslee called ‘If your brain has a “buy button,” what pushes it? ’ looks at a study of consumer preferences for Coca-Cola over its rival Pepsi. 3 Dr P. Read Montague, a neuroscientist at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston who led the Coca-Cola versus Pepsi study, said he was fascinated by the way cultural images made their way into people’s choices. The study of Coke and Pepsi, financed by the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the Kane Family Foundation, showed that two different brain systems were at play.
When subjects used their sense of taste alone to choose a preferred drink, an area of the brain called the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex lit up. When told they were drinking ‘the real thing’, as Coke is widely known, a memory region called the hippocampus and another part of the prefrontal cortex lit up. The study showed that some people did not choose a 2. Mark Sweney, ‘UK advertisers spend more on Internet than TV’, Guardian, 30 September 2009. 3. Sandra Blakeslee, ‘If your brain has a ‘buy button,’ what pushes it? ’, New York Times, 19 October 2004.
8 | The advertising effect 4. George Saunders (2003) Jon. www. newyorker. com/archive/200 3/01/27/030127fi_fiction. 5. R. G. Heath, The Hidden Powers of Advertising, Admap Monograph 7, 2001. drink based on taste alone. They chose a drink plus what it conjured up to their medial prefrontal cortex, namely the strong brand identity of Coca-Cola. If companies can work out how to trigger certain parts of our brains then that will be commercial gold dust. Advertising running wild has long formed a part of visions of a future dystopia.
In Blade Runner the inescapable corporate advertising boards fill the skylines; in Wall. E, the children’s Disney film, humans are forced from earth by their own waste, and their future lives, moods and activities are dictated by advertising from a single central company, BnL. In Minority Report the billboards speak to us as individuals and tailor their messages accordingly. In the classic George Saunders’ short story ‘Jon’, the young adults can only communicate emotions to each other in the slogans and jingles of product endorsements.
4 None of this now feels far off, because it isn’t. Parents are now naming their children after products such as Armani and L’Oreal. Science fiction is fast becoming science fact. A dystopian vision of advertising on school uniforms; of personalised advertising designed to tap into your individual fears, hopes and dreams; of a future where adverts are projected on to the sky; awaits us. None of this is by accident; all of it is by design. The question is why? The motor behind this unprecedented expansion of advertising is of course the market.
The market is a fabulously inventive and naturally expansive machine. The goal is to maximise profit by selling as much as possible at the biggest margin possible. To do this we must buy more and more things at a faster and faster pace. This is the crucial role of advertising: creating wants and turning them into needs. Not as a one-off event but as a never ending series of desires. The trick of the advertiser is to persuade the individual both to stick with their product and wherever possible make us want something new by persuading us that what we currently have is somehow unsatisfactory.
To do this they plug into our natural human desires to both belong and be different, to gain respect and recognition from others, which they link to what we buy and not what we do, and then apply those desires to the next new product and then the next. This marketing machine can never rest. This year’s profits have to beat last year’s otherwise the bonuses and the status of the investors and the executives are lost. The City and the analysts have to be appeased. If your company doesn’t sell more then another will.
It’s dog eat dog in the world of global competition; and the competition is for the money in our wallets and purses, which is unlocked through advertising, or more likely for the debt on our credit cards. The goal of advertising then is not the creation of happiness and consumer fulfilment. Instead the purpose and consequence seems to be the creation of a mood of restless dissatisfaction with what we have got and who we are so that we go out and buy more. Advertising is no longer there to inform about the advantages of one product over a rival.
Society, in an age of relative abundance, has long since gone past the point of rational decision making when it comes to purchasing. Everything is about emotion and in particular the ability to tap into our deepest needs and insecurities to get us to buy more. Today happiness can only be fleeting, and must last little longer than the time it takes to carry the latest purchase home; then the process of wanting more and needing more must be started again. Academics have now proved that advertising does have a ‘hidden power’, which enables it to work without our attention or recall.
As this report shows, this is particularly important to children whose brains are not yet fully developed in a way that enables them to deal with such emotional pulls. The Low Attention Processing Model developed by Heath shows how advertising can work without high levels of attention being paid and places the primacy of feeling over thinking. 5 An absurd example of this involves razors: advertisers have persuaded us that we need a sixblade shaving razor only until enough time has elapsed before they can tell us that only seven will do.
At one level this is ludicrous, but at another quite sane: six blades are better than five no matter how marginally and what else is there to do but aspire to a seventh blade? And if someone else deserves ‘the best a man can get’, then why not don’t I? But at a more worrying level, the use of the Low Attention Processing Model shows how innocuous adverts that don’t seem to want to sell us anything work away at our subconscious to implant brand images and positive messages to drive up sales. The Cadbury Gorilla or the Sony Introduction | 9
Bravia bouncing balls seem like just a bit of harmless fun when the intention is much more directly commercial. More of this later. For now we should reflect on a world where everyone is on a consumer treadmill, spurred on in large part by the role of advertising in creating ever more new things to need. Others have it, so we want it. In this way advertising takes the form of a collective action problem. Driven on by the seductive images of success and aspiration we compete with each other for status, but simply make ourselves feel like failures as we out bid each other for the latest car, gadget or holiday.
We cannot win this race because there is no finishing line as an endless stream of new things to desire are created and sold to us. In the crowd, if the person at the front stands on tip toes then we all have to; and everyone is worse off. The upshot is that we are richer but no happier; the fabric of society and the quality of our own lives is weakened as we take more and more individual purchasing decisions in an exhausting search for the good life, and of course the environment is threatened as we live eight planet lives, rather than just the one planet life we are
obviously restricted to, in the pursuit of more and more. As recently as last year President Sarkozy in France commissioned a group of eminent economists led by US Nobel prize winner Joseph Stiglitz to look at the issue of happiness. They concluded that societies should be judged not solely on their economic production, but on the degree of wellbeing experienced by the people who live in them, and whether this well-being can be sustained into the future. The recession provides a moment to stop and take stock.
Many of us are having to cut back because credit is drying up, house prices are falling, wages aren’t rising or jobs have been lost. All this creates real spending pressure, but can it be used as a turning point? Are we going to allow the advertisers to get us back on the treadmill as soon as the recovery picks up? Can we at least try and rebalance our lives just a bit by reining in the effects of advertising? In suggesting this we are not saying that people should stop buying or advertisers should stop advertising altogether.
Buying things is important to us as an expression of identity, sense of belonging and difference, but many of us buy too much. Advertising, in turn, plays an important cultural role in society and clearly helps the economy. At its best it can help us as individuals make an informed decision about what to buy and where the best deals are available – but its reach is going too far. When more three years olds recognise the McDonald’s symbol than recognise their own name – perhaps we should be asking if we have a problem?
The nature and extent of advertising need to be questioned as new techniques and new technology see advertising spiralling out of control, often – as we will see – with damaging consequences. The good society Money makes some things easier – it means you don’t have to worry about a big gas bill, or how to pay for the next school trip – but happiness is elusive and can’t be bought. We are social beings and it is social relationships that make and direct our lives; the thousands of tiny social interactions change our mood, and shape who we are and who we will become.
Advertising recognises this – which is why Nokia, the phone manufacturer, has the catch line ‘connecting people’, and there is a range of snacks called Friendchips. Volvo tells us that ‘Life is better if lived together’ and Orange that ‘Without others I am nothing’. Advertising tries to convince us that we need to purchase to experience fulfilling social relationships. But in attempting to purchase the relationships we need we degrade and damage them. Solid and enduring social relationships can’t be purchased but need something that many of us are lacking – time.
Many of us are time poor. To develop the social relationships we need to live fulfilling and enjoyable lives we need time. Time for a life with family and friends to do more of the things that make us happy. Of course advertisers also know how important time is to us, so they advertise Blackberrys with statements about how they will get rid of wasted time in your day to allow more time for the good things in life – but all the Blackberry does is make sure you are never free from work – in fact people with Blackberrys work an extra 15 hours a week.
6 Advertising tries to make us feel as if we are in control of our lives and making the decisions that really affect us. But the promises of adverts are often 6. Hamish McRae (2009) ‘We need to do more and email less’ Independent http://www. indepen dent. co. uk/opinion/commentators/ hamish-mcrae/hamish-mcrae-weneed-to-do-more-and-email-less1777151. html. 10 | The advertising effect illusory. Microsoft is currently spending millions trying to tell us that we invented Windows 7. If we think we built it then they think we will buy more of it.
Real freedom and control come not just from the high street but through collective and democratic decisions that shape our world: what sort of society, economy and public services do we want? When and how do we get to choose not to choose? For a better society we need to get the balance right between decisions made as consumers and as citizens. Too much advertising that encourages too much consumerism undermines the chances of a good society and a good, well-balanced life. Advertising can be an important part of the good society but it should be about providing information to us as consumers and citizens.
No one wants a world in which we don’t all share the enjoyment of funny adverts. And in times of crisis, like wars or natural disasters, public adverts can play a critical role in mobilising shared effort. But there has to be a balance and when technology and techniques change it is important that society decides democratically whether and how advertising is regulated in a way that benefits not just commercial interest but the public interest. The current rules on advertising were drawn up in a time before many of the current technologies and psychological insights had been developed.
The regulations now have to catch up with a new reality. The principles behind the regulation of advertising If society is to look again at whether and how advertising is to be more effectively regulated than we need to be clear about the principles behind any public decisions. The first is the issue of choice and place. People should have the freedom to choose when they are exposed to advertising: when to look at product information and when not to. If we decide to buy a newspaper or magazine, or to subscribe to a television channel, then we are making the choice to look at the adverts that come with it.
But in the street or when using public services or public transport it should be different. Here we should be free from private and commercial interest, and billboards and shop signs should not be allowed to disfigure our towns and roadsides. Second, our civil liberties demand that the Internet should be a site for common good and not commercial practice without our permission. What we look at and search for should not be recorded without our expressed permission so that it can be used to compile data to sell us more. Third, children should be better protected.
Children cannot deal with the increasing blitz of advertising they are exposed to; they do not understand its purpose and are at risk of exploitation. Armies of psychologists and child developments experts are recruited to work out how to sell more to children at an age when they don’t even understand the concept of being sold to. They need our protection. There is a large body of academic work – including recent studies by Dr Richard Ryan and Dr Tim Kasser, professors of psychology at the University of Rochester and Knox College – arguing that seeking
satisfaction in material goods is not only unfulfilling, but that people who put a primary focus on affluence also tend to experience a high degree of anxiety and depression, a lower sense of well-being, and greater behavioural and physical problems. These problems are heightened in vulnerable groups. A study by the Children’s Society found that hyper consumption is causing a range of problems for children, including high family break-up, teenage unkindness and pressures towards premature sexualisation.
In a recent paper called ‘Measuring the hidden power of emotive advertising’, Robert Heath from the Bath School of Management and Pam Hyder from Standard Life look at the Low Attention Processing Model, which describes how advertising can work without high levels of attention being paid, and without being recalled. Note that this was formerly known as the Low Involvement Processing Model, which caused confusion in the USA with models that use involvement to refer to product or category involvement. Heath and Hyder summarise the Low Attention Processing as follows:7 1.
Because brands match each other’s performance so swiftly, and consumers exist in a timepoor environment, considered choice tends to give way to intuitive choice, in which emotions are more influential. 2. This situation inhibits the consumer’s desire to seek out information about brands, and 7. R. G. Heath and P. Hyder, ‘Measuring the hidden power of emotive advertising’, International Journal of Market Research, vol 47, no5, 2005. Introduction | 11 minimises the need for them to pay attention to advertising.
Brand information can, however, be ‘acquired’ at low and even zero attention levels, using two distinct mental processes. The first process is passive learning, which is a low-attention cognitive process. Passive learning has been shown to be poor at changing opinions and attitudes but is able to record and link together brand names and other elements in an advert. 3. The second process is implicit learning, which is a fully automatic non-cognitive process that has been shown to be independent of attention.
Implicit learning cannot analyse or reinterpret anything: all it is able to do is to store what is perceived, along with any simple conceptual meanings we attach to these perceptions. 4. Because of this limitation, implicit learning does not establish strong rational brand benefits in the consumer’s mind. Instead it builds and reinforces associations over time and these associations become linked to the brand by passive learning. These associations are extraordinarily enduring, and can trigger emotional markers, which in turn influence intuitive decision-making.
5. Passive and implicit learning are semiautomatic and fully automatic mental processes. As such they will be used every time an advert is seen or heard, regardless of how little attention is being paid. Because attention to advertising tends to diminish over time, the occasions on which an advert is processed attentively will be outnumbered many times by the occasions on which it is processed at lower attention and its content is learned passively and implicitly. So advertising that exploits low-attention processing will work better when seen several times.
It is this subconscious effect that is so worrying for the development of children. This low attention processing advertising will not be affected by increasing children’s educational awareness, which is why the government report on how to deal with advertising, which called for greater education to help children deal with the onslaught of adverts they face, will prove inadequate. 8 The prefrontal cortex, which helps mediate consumer choice, develops later in children and is impaired in older people, groups that are highly susceptible to advertising.
Young children are often sucked in by advertisements for sugary foods, while the elderly, for example, can fall victim to buying fake insurance policies. Fourth, society as a whole, working through government, should decide what constitutes the good society and what role advertising should play in it. We believe we should rebalance consumption with time and in the process look to redistribute income and wealth. This we believe means deterring excessive advertising, not least to help deliver the culture in which environmental sustainability is possible.
Fifth, the advertising industry, because of the leading role it plays in the creation of a consumer society, has a responsibility to provide at least some help for ‘good causes’ free of charge and should be praised for the good campaigns it runs and held to account for those that are socially or environmentally damaging. The principle of placing necessary restrictions on advertising already exists. As a society we already recognise that advertising can and does go too far, which is why we already regulate it and have a body to ensure it abides by the regulations in the form of Ofcom.
But new technology and the move towards more and more public forms of advertising, especially to young people, means new boundaries and guidelines now need to be set. This is why we believe the self-regulating Advertising Standards Authority should be replaced by a statutory body which is capable of effectively regulating this industry. An awareness of the potential for advertising to go too far is the reason many developed countries regulate advertising to limit its more damaging effects.
In Sweden, it is recognised that children struggle to deal with advertising and so advertising on television is banned. In Sao Paolo in Brazil advertising in public spaces is prohibited. Greece does not permit stations to run commercials for toy guns, tanks or other instruments of war, and bans adverts for all other toys between 7am and 10pm. In Spain adverts that promote the ‘cult of body’ in harmful way to girls have been outlawed. These are examples of redrawing not just the regulatory boundaries but also the moral boundaries of society.
It is time Britain had such a moral debate. 8. David Buckingham (2009) The impact of the commercial world on children’s well-being. 12 The problems caused by the advertising effect Left unchecked, advertising in its new forms will make a substantial contribution to social and environmental problems. Given advances in technology and science there is now a strong public interest in deciding again when and where advertising should be allowed. There are pressing reasons why a new approach to advertising regulation is needed. Sowing too many seeds of unhappiness
Advertising works today, in large part, by making us dissatisfied. We won’t buy the next thing unless we are encou