Guy Shrubsole

Machynlleth, United Kingdom

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Guy Shrubsole
Posted over 3 years ago
Can advertising be both a force for commerce AND a force for good?
Full credit for being open to this discussion, Laura. Late last year I co-authored a report with WWF and a former advertiser, seeking to open up a debate about the ethics of advertising, called Think Of Me As Evil? - the title was inspired by a quote from Rory Sutherland of Ogilvy, who said that he would "rather be thought of as evil than useless" in the work he does. (Report PDF: http://bit.ly/t7PDx5) As we review in the report, there's compelling evidence that advertising, far from simply building brands as you state, boosts overall levels of consumption. That's to say, it encourages people to spend or borrow rather than save, or even work longer hours to earn more - in order to attain the sorts of materialist lifestyles that are being advertised to us. In a world of resource limits and an increasingly unstable climate, ever-increasing levels of material consumption are unsustainable. Advertisers often say they bear no responsibility for such big problems - 'we're merely selling what a client asks them to'; 'we have to rely on govt / other businesses / the consumer to shift behaviour and drive greener investment first'. Of course, pretty much every industry and every state has raised similar objections: 'we're only 2% of global emissions', 'someone else should lead'. But as you say in an earlier post, advertising "...can shape public wants, desires, priorities and expectations." To that list I'd also add cultural values - an area that has seen a huge amount of social psychology research in recent decades. We argue in our report that advertising promotes materialistic values, and undermines pro-social and pro-environmental values. If advertising wants to be a force for good in society, it needs to start thinking very hard about its indirect impacts. It's one thing for Starcom to (commendably) pilot its own carbon footprinting tool to measure the direct CO2 from crafting an ad campaign; but what about the additional CO2 caused by that ad boosting consumption?