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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.

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15 Comment on this post

  1. Aveek Bhattacharya

    This is a really interesting and challenging question. I think that the arguments in defence of advertising are stronger than you present them.

    I don’t agree that most advertising is persuasive rather than informative – almost all ads are trying to get some transparently-acceptable message across, at the very least making people aware of their product.

    I think the hedonic effects can be very strong as well – the work of people like Brian Wansink shows how significant context is to the pleasure we get from consumption. Perhaps the most famous example of this is the ‘Pepsi Paradox’.

    Also, while it’s perfectly plausible to be sceptical about the benfits of growth – as Layard, Wilkinson and Pickett are – I think you’re a bit quick to write it off. Your attitude to growth is especially puzzling as I think you need the hedonistic view that you earlier reject to claim that wealth above a certain level “does not greatly benefit its possessors”.

  2. Thanks — you make excellent points. Even if you’re right that one aim of many ads are trying to get the message ‘this product exists’ across to consumers, most of these ads will still be autonomy-undermining. For such ads are not purely informative. On hedonic effects: you may be right that they are significant. My claim was that people might also take a good deal of pleasure in being autonomous and being aware of their autonomy. It’s an empirical matter — one worth testing. I do find hedonism plausible, but as far as I can see it’s not necessary for making the claim about wealth. Even if you believe in some kind of pluralism about well-being, it may well be that being rich doesn’t tend to bring non-hedonistic goods (such as e.g. friendship, knowledge, accomplishment…) either.

  3. I found this an interesting (and dare I say it) persuasive post! In response, I would like to ask what implications your view has for televised charity appeals. Part of the purpose of these appeals is of course informative; they aim to bring the suffering of others to the attention of those who may not be aware of it. However, it seems that they are also designed to persuade the viewer to donate; they do not merely tell us that people are suffering, they tell us that we ought to do something about it by donating. These appeals might also persuade us at a sub-concious level to some extent, given their use of emotive pictures, language and music. Do these appeals subvert our autonomy? If so (given your claim that any goods which persuasive advertising produce are insignificant in comparison to the subversion of autonomy that they involve), can these charity appeals be defended? Could it be permissible to allow the subversion of our autonomy in order to benefit those who need aid? Moreover, what implications does this have for the moral value of an agent’s donating in response to these appeals?

  4. Gregory F. Zerovnik, PhD

    For pity’s sake, persuasion is a major component of most communications, commercial or otherwise. Since Adam seduced Eve (or was it the other way around?), it has been a part of every person’s interactive life. And surely making a persuasive argument on behalf of a product, service, or concept is a far better thing than making a threat with a sword or gun, yes? Advertising at least is clearly being presented as persuasion. I recommend that author Crisp review Tversky and Kahneman’s work on framing and priming, as there is no clear guiding light to be followed when it comes to the tools of suasion.

  5. I agree with much of this post, but I do think there are still plenty of benefits to be gained from economic growth. It may be nearing the point whereby the costs in terms of focusing on work rather than pleasure outweight the gains, but there are still some areas, especially in healthcare, whereby economic growth will surely provide significant advances.

    Furthermore, I believe the ‘threshold’ of wealth you mention is somewhere around $75,000. At least, Kahneman and Deaton claim that “When plotted against log income, life evaluation rises steadily. Emotional well-being also rises with log income, but there is no further progress beyond an annual income of ~$75,000.”

  6. Thanks for your comments. Some quick responses.

    Jonny: Excellent example, which raises some deep questions about autonomy. One difference between your case and the after-shave is that it’s not obvious that I have any reason to buy the after-shave. (In general, it’s not clear, in our age of personal hygeine, what helpful function perfumes play.) It may also be that people are more aware of the fact that their heart-strings are going to be pulled by the TV show than they are when they unthinkingly buy advertised products. If we do donate just because our autonomy has been subverted, then I suppose the natural thing to think is that it would have been better to donate autonomously, but giving non-autonomously is better than not giving at all!

    Greg: ‘Persuasive’ is a term of art in this context. ‘Quasi-hypnotic’ might be more appropriate.

    Matt: Agreed. But we might be able to improve e.g. health care by redistribution rather than growth. And there might be growth without advertising.

  7. This was a very informative article and you brought up some good points. Everybody uses persuasion as part of their daily lives. That is how we get what we want, so the people that say advertising shouldn’t use persuasion, in my eyes, is being a hypocrite. If we take persuasion out of advertising can you imagine how boring our world would be? Information can only go so far without using persuasion. Everybody wants the audience to buy their product not a generic brand. Persuading the consumer to buy your brand because of the emotions or status your brand will give them is what makes your product stand out from the rest.
    Thank you for such a great article.

  8. Roger Crisp recommends a world-wide ban on persuasive advertising from now, for one year. The word “ban” implies forcing some people to refrain, against their will, from persuasive advertising. Such a ban would in effect destroy freedom of speech, since anything or everything could be labelled “persuasive advertising”. The destruction of freedom of speech easily leads to dictatorship. I assume Crisp assumes the ban could be brought about democratically, that is, that a majority of the people would support the ban, and that this would be what would make it achievable. In such a scenario, I think the same majority of the people could achieve an equally good result in a much nicer way by instead using their consumer power, as individuals on the free market, to shun products for which persuasive advertising takes place, and buy products for which little or no persuasive advertising takes place. Although most people might not easily spot persuasive advertising themselves, they could simply read reliable research on which products are more (and more often, and more widely) persuasively advertised, and which ones are less, and then consume led by that knowledge. It’s enough if at least one person notices each case of persuasive advertising, and points it out to everybody else, through the internet.

  9. “On hedonic effects: you may be right that they are significant. My claim was that people might also take a good deal of pleasure in being autonomous and being aware of their autonomy.”

    I agree with Roger’s reply to Aveek here.

    I would add that we should add up both costs and benefits for each alternative. On the cost side of advertising is not just undermined autonomy but hedonic disvalue: if feel worse (pressured, cornered, coaxed) when there is advertising all around and try to shun or block advertising as much as possible. Avoidance is taxing and drains energy from other thoughts and actions that would have been hedonically better. Add also indirect consequences. I believe there are causal links like so advertising –> consumerist mindset –> atomistic individualism –> less solidaristic political policy on key justice issues such as inequality, world poverty and harmful environmental impact on future generations.

    Gregory F. Zerovnik: if you see weaponed threats as the only alternative to accepting advertising then you have an impoverished sense of alternatives.

    Matt Sharp: I agree to your first paragraph. But note that if economic growth is desired only in narrow areas, like health technology, then it is an open question if such growth isn’t better promoted by curbing advertising and markets in many other areas.

    M.K: your interpretation of Crisp’s argument is very uncharitable. It is feasible to device a ban that more strictly regulates advertising so that many forms of persuasive advertising are in effect banned and still accepting a diverse free speech culture. Note also that free speech is a complex political philosophical term. Wealthy corporations have today in effect monopolized visual speech in many parts of cities — only they can afford to buy the advertising spots and it is illegal for others to spread visual or textual messages on walls. Note also that it is practically impossible for a working person to avoid mental intrusion from persuasive advertising if living in a city. It is in effect coercive brain reconfiguration.

    1. The problem with trying to promote growth in certain areas, such as health technology, is that it is not at all clear which developments will help with achieving this. For example, there is talk of developing scanning technology that can diagnose a whole range of diseases, a bit like the medical tricorder of Star Trek. The technologies involved in this could be most effectively and most rapidly developed from other technologies that are created with a completely different purpose in mind; for example the iPad or iPhone. Consumption that stimulates the computing industry has benefits in speeding up development of technology that aids the biosciences. And consumption that stimulates other industries, such as material sciences, will no doubt also feed into stimulating the computer industry. And so on…

      1. Partly agreed. But: “The technologies involved in this could be most effectively and …” That is a big “could”. To “will necessarily”. Again we have costs and benefits. First, our current mode of economic growth is unsustainable. It causes suffering and death to innocent people and will, due to environmental impact, cause much more deaths in the years to come. Can those killings be justified in the name of growth? I think that is a very hard argument to make. Second, to assess a productive activity X that has non-vital direct effects E1 and important indirect effects E2 we can’t compare it to zero sum. Regulations/bans bring revenues and other opportunities that, smartly designed, COULD bring benefits that outweigh E2. It is in the end an empirical issue hard for either of us to settle here.

    2. Gregory F. Zerovnik, PhD

      Adbustin: Speaking of impoverished, you apparently lack any appreciation of rhetorical tools.

  10. I do find Roger’s idea attractive, as a life without constant exhortations to buy more stuff does have its attractions and might delay for some time our destruction of the planet.

    The economic argument that “all growth is g(o)od” is essentially free market theology, as what counts as ‘growth’ in indices such as GDP is in good part “churn” or indeed stuff we may not regard as good – for example all healthcare spending, regardless of whether it is necessary, unnecessary or treating disease or injury which should never have occurred in the first place if proper preventive healthcare had been available, counts on the positive side of the register. The paradox is that prevention of disease, seen in narrow GDP based terms, might be less advantageous than expensive treatment later ( unless of course that person lives to consume more McDonalds hamburgers and iPhones for a very long time ).

    It does not follow that because advertising promotes economic growth it necessarily promotes the goods we should be seeking.

    The “freedom of speech ” argument against suppression of advertising is regularly played. It does have some force, as if one can suppress an advertisement for a hamburger one can suppress an advertisement for a political party and can move on to closing newspapers. It is, however, commonly trotted out by people with massive conflicts of interest and in a very disingenuous way ( for example, we are seeing a lot of squealing in Australia about ‘free speech’ from groups like News Limited who are confronted by the prospect of a tougher regulatory mechanism for the media ).

    This opens up the question of how ‘free’ such speech may be ( it is commonly very expensive representation for some very particular interests ) and how free the hapless recipient may be in assessing the claims and inducements made.

    This is seen in microcosm in my own area (medicine ), but I suspect that we may not be alone in this. Drug companies and infant formula manufacturers cherry pick the top people from the marketing and psychology schools and set them to work on the advertising and inducements which we are so liberally offered. Doctors when asked commonly say that we make all our decisions in the best interests of patients etc. etc. but it has been nicely demonstrated that the likelihood of prescribing a drug or recommending its inclusion in one’s hospital formulary is directly related to the amount of freebies/trips/conferences/research grants one has with companies in general. It is also specific to particular companies.

    In other words, our ability to perceive and acknowledge the influences affecting our decisions is highly suspect and we are commonly arrayed against highly trained psychologists and marketers who know exactly what buttons to push to get us to move in the desired direction. This is even more true in the wider market. The driver is most commonly profit and the underpinnings of the campaign are never made explicit, nor are the claims made in any way evidence based.

    We see this also in the marketing of disease, a trick used in Australia to get around bans on drug-specific marketing to consumers . The disease is marketed a) to consumers and b) to funders and professionals, often by expert groups populated by doctors who are on the corporate tit in various ways. For a light, but distinctly thought provoking, diversion I suggest a visit to: Take the questionnaire.

    It is clearly unsustainable in any democracy to selectively ban advertising, a ban on all advertising may be less anti-democratic. Regulation is also sternly resisted. We are currently in the middle of a debate about plain labelling of tobacco packages which is being run in terms of both freedom of speech and denial of intellectual property rights by the manufacturers. In essence, they are arguing that they must have a largely unfettered right to manipulate us to kill ourselves . Is it so unreasonable for a society to protect its citizens against expensively funded subliminal messages that a lethal product will improve your societal success, general well-being and sex life when the evidence clearly suggests that the opposite is the case?

    In finding a balance one could argue for a regulatory approach which mandates transparency ( “x. corporation paid y. dollars for this ad. and the people appearing in the ad. received z. dollars and have the following conflicts of interest” and that all claims made should be evidence based and supportable. This would, of course, only work for concrete claims and not the subliminal messages so often used. This has the makings of a regulatory nightmare, but is probably the only direction in which one could move and expect any real progress.

    I do believe that most of us, whether wearing our professional hats or our citizen/consumer hats are babes in the wood when it comes to examination of the messages we are getting through our media and advertisers and assessing the power of the forces attempting to drive our decisions. Transparency may go some way toward helping this, but I must confess that I have seen little evidence that this works either!

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