A World without Advertising?
Recently , UNICEF launched their Children’s Rights and Business Principles, the sixth of which says that businesses should ‘use marketing and advertising that respect and support children’s rights’. This is hard to deny, as is the claim that many companies are seeking unjustifiably to manipulate children and their parents for profit. Indeed there seems little reason to restrict only advertising inflicted on children. All of us are subject daily to ever more invasive and insidious targeted advertising, much of it online.
Some advertising – such as that outside my village for a Cub Scout jumble sale at the weekend – is not only harmless, but useful. It informs us of things we didn’t know and which we often find it helpful to know. But most advertising is not like this. It is what is often called ‘persuasive’ rather than informative, aiming at directing our choices in ways of which we’re often quite unaware. This is clearly true of ‘subliminal’ advertising, where the image in question is not registered by consciousness at all. But it is true also of a vast amount of persuasive advertising. We may be consiously aware of it, but it leads us without our realizing it to make purchasing decisions on the basis of considerations which we could not accept as relevant were they made transparent to us. There are various reasons for favouring one after-shave over another: aroma, price, healing properties. The fact that a link between the after-shave and excitement has been established in my mind through exposure to ads showing, alongside images of the product, someone surfing is not one of them.
Persuasive advertising, then, undermines our capacity for autonomy or rational self-government. It might seem remarkable that citizens of modern democratic societies allow businesses to do this to them. But it is not, since the very success of the practice depends on people’s not being fully aware of what is going on.
There are various possible defences of persuasive advertising. One is hedonistic. If I enjoy using the advertised after-shave more, because of the frisson I get when I splash it on, why does it matter what the source of my pleasure is? This response is likely not to persuade those who attach independent value to autonomy. But even hedonists might claim to take pleasure in the knowledge that they are able to make their own decisions rationally, knowledge which of course none of us can now have.
Another defence is economic. Advertising encourages consumption, and increased consumption is necessary for growth. This is a poor argument. Growth itself is undesirable, once an economy has reached a certain level (as all economies in the developed world have), since (see books such as Layard’s Happiness: Lessons from a New Science and Wilkinson & Pickett’s The Spirit Level) wealth above a certain threshold does not greatly benefit its possessors, and also causes harmful inequality. The argument is especially implausible in the context of global warming.
Advertising also supports many worthwhile ventures, such as newspapers or art exhibitions. And doubtless there are other things that can be said in favour of it (it can be amusing, or aesthetically valuable in itself, for example). But its subversion of our autonomy is so great that any goods it produces are insignificant in comparison, and there are of course other ways to learn about the world, be amused, or encounter aesthetic value. Fortunately, philosophical suggestions don’t have to be feasible. So I recommend a world-wide ban on persuasive advertising from now, for one year. Then we could see how much we missed it.