by Oliver Hayes,
Policy and Campaigns Lead
5 min read
Happy Black Friday! I hope before reading this you’ve spent as much money as possible on things you don’t need. #BuildBackBetter
Black Friday, Black Lungs?
To coincide with today’s heart-warming festival of overconsumption, a report by the New Weather Institute and the climate charity Possible says advertising needs reining in if we want to stop climate change. It cites two example products – beef and tobacco – as accelerators of ecological peril (interesting and unusual to see the latter talked about in this context, I thought) and showcases how advertising, well, sells them.
The main author, Prof Tim Kasser, is the leading academic on materialism and values. Materialism, Tim says, is:
“the priority that individuals place on values and goals to be wealthy, to have many possessions, and to obtain the status and appealing image that often come with wealth and possessions”
Tim’s work demonstrates two key things. One, that the more we’re exposed to advertising the more we prioritise materialism. And two, how those materialistic values and goals affect other aspects of our lives, notably our attitudes towards ourselves, to each other and the planet. Bluntly, materialism makes us less happy, less community oriented, and less likely to do anything positive for the natural world. Which means advertising is on the hook for these things, too.
Consumerism without a cause
Seeing as it’s Black Friday, here are a couple of stories about rampant consumerism. The first of which isn’t written as a story about rampant consumerism at all. The sad tale of Beth, a woman overcome by impulse buying and her subsequent misery is framed as a personal tragedy:
“The elation when buying something is an addictive feeling, it is like a drug"
Beth’s addiction, and her apparently non-sensical purchases – buying a car when she can’t drive – are presented as anomalous; problems specific to Beth, whose mental health struggles make her unduly susceptible to the lure of online shopping.
But isn’t this really evidence of a system working brilliantly, on its own terms? Sure, most people don’t accidentally buy cars, but fundamentally consumerism demands that we buy things we don’t need and can’t afford. Beth’s habits are not unforeseen consequences of consumerism, they’re the fuel in its tank.
Which brings me to story #2, new research establishing that people don’t actually want to buy more stuff.
The GlobeScan 2020 Healthy & Sustainable Living Study – conducted in 27 countries in June this year – found half of people want to buy less stuff and three quarters want “built-to-last” items.
This can’t have pleased the cheerleaders of consumerism in marketing departments throughout the land. However, as they probably know better than most, the study also reports a significant gap between intention and action when it comes to light-touch purchasing. Advertising works, it seems.
'Don't buy this jacket'
That was the famous anti-black Friday slogan adorning Patagonia’s 2011 black Friday campaign. To be fair to adland, there are more of these initiatives than there used to be, and many in the industry are spearheading genuine efforts to bring agencies’ operations in line with a net zero trajectory.
This roundup of 2020’s “please don’t buy our stuff, ever, honest” (ahem) adverts does draw on more virtuous themes, as does Burger King’s plea for its customers to buy Big Macs. All of which begs the question: are we comfortable with advertising that isn’t reinforcing all the socially and environmentally destructive values outlined by Tim Kasser? Answers on a postcard.
YouTube, YouWant, YouBuy, YouRepeat
A forensic study of children’s viewing habits on YouTube by Common Sense media has revealed that half of videos viewed by children aged 8 and under promoted products for children to buy. Of these, “22% were considered high in consumerism because they centred around toys, involved YouTubers promoting their own merchandise, or prominently featured branded products”.
Whenever writing about YouTube it’s worth repeating the hilarious fact that their terms say YouTube is “not for kids” despite knowing full well that it’s the most popular website in the world for kids, and bragging about it to boot.
It’s great to see this report focus not only on the harmful or inappropriate adverts kids are viewing (gambling, violence, sexual content etc.) but the extent of commercial content itself. Tim Kasser would be proud.
Interesting times for corporate monoliths. Apple and Facebook are reportedly at each other’s throats like never before over privacy. The BBC piece makes the point that Apple can afford to be preachy on privacy given their revenue predominantly comes from the app store, rather than advertising (as Facebook’s overwhelmingly does).
Our open letter calling the tech giants to stop profiling kids for advertising purposes provides an opportunity for those companies who pride themselves on ethics to put their money where their mouth is. Why wouldn’t the tech giants – Apple especially, given how central privacy has become to their brand – commit to never profile kids for advertising?
Parents or platforms - who's responsible for protecting kids online?
There’s been a steady drip of stories – some heart-breaking – about kids’ exposure to harmful content online. Much of the coverage focuses on new tech solutions to detect and hide that content, or parents helping their kids build ‘digital resilience’. Both important no doubt, but surely responsibility starts and ends with the platforms themselves?
As was so brilliantly exposed in The Social Dilemma, the entire business model of social media giants depends on keeping people engaged for longer so they can be served more ads. And the recommendation algorithms have learned that what keeps people hooked is ever more extreme content. ‘Digital resilience’ can only do so much.
So while platforms talk a good(ish) game about their efforts to detect and remove the really awful stuff, they have less to say about the inevitability of more hideous content rearing its head. Because to some extent, the expansion of their vast wealth relies on it. They’re quite happy playing whack-a-mole.
This realisation – that self-regulation is never going to work – has slowly dawned on policy makers. The UK Government’s much-delayed ‘Online Harms’ legislation may, we’re told, see light of day in the new year. So far there’s been little debate in this context about marketing itself as a ‘harm’, but the separate (though related) ‘Age Appropriate Design Code’ will put limits on behavioural advertising to children when it comes into force in September 2021.
The question, as ever, will be whether tech platforms see these tentative regulatory efforts as a challenge of compliance (i.e. lawyering up to make sure they’re not technically breaking any rules) or an opportunity to aim for an ethical high-water mark.
If history is a guide, we should probably lower expectations.
Join the campaign to Stop Targeted Advertising to Kids
We will not get on track to a 1.5 degree world or anywhere close without taking on the systemic pressure we all face to consume.
That’s why Global Action Plan wants to collaborate with a range of organisations to Stop Targeted Advertising to Kids. We think all websites and apps popular with children should:
- Comply with the law and stop datamining under 13s
- Turn off behavioural advertising to under 18s
- Limit ads to no more than 10% of social media content