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Advertising pain? Advertising has become one of the most visible elements of today’s consumer society.

Thursday 12 August 2010
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Giles Crosse looks at what it does, and whether we need it.

Advertising evokes some strong responses from most people. Virtually everyone living in a developed country will have received unwanted telephone calls or emails offering the top rate on a loan, or a special offer on the latest flat screen TV.

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Recently, Western governments have begun to set new rules on tobacco or alcohol advertising. Whether or not this may be a sign of development, such issues ask some serious questions about whether the state has the right to dictate what is ‘harmful’ for us to view.

Plainly alcohol and tobacco are killers. Yet are these products any more worthy of a ban than unhealthy ready meals, or gas guzzling SUVs? And who has the right to decide all of this anyway?

Just as importantly, advertising is probably largely responsible for the consumer culture that’s grown up in developed countries. Parents, bombarded by advertising, are highly pressurised into buying the latest console for their children, while teenagers are constantly exposed to unrealistic body forms and marketing to buy into the latest fashion trend or dieting regime.

Of course, it’s easy to focus on the negatives. Adverts allow charities to petition for funds from the public. And advertising is probably also key to free competition and a lot of the elements that can make for a more fluid, developing market where innovative things that could help us meet tomorrow’s challenges can flourish.

Balancing act

So where are we going to draw the dividing line, if we choose to do so at all? Many countries have agencies responsible for keeping an eye on advertising clarity and fairness. These include the Advertising Standards Agency (ASA) in the UK, the European Advertising Standards Alliance (EASA), or the Canadian Advertising Research Foundation (CARF).

One of the things that is most difficult about all this is that opinions are likely to be highly subjective, and that makes it very difficult to come to any meaningful conclusions.

For example, the UK ASA adjudicated against one particular UK advertising poster on August 4, 2010. The poster featured, ‘An image of a naked woman from the waist down with underwear pulled down around her thighs. In the place of her face and upper body was a cartoon drawing of the silhouette of a naked woman pole dancing, above the word “Oops …” explained the ASA’s media advice website.

The ASA considered ‘that the depiction of the woman in such a provocative pose with her underwear pulled down around her thighs, was likely to be seen as unduly explicit and degrading to women. We concluded that the image was likely to cause serious or widespread offence and concluded it was unsuitable for public display.

Undoubtedly, for many people, the ASA’s judgement will have been correct. Many others might argue the advertisement was harmless, some would find it highly offensive, while still more could think advertisements promoting margarine or chocolate containing palm oil, causing mass deforestation, are far more important.

In this context, Greenpeace reported on May 17, 2010, that, ‘Chocolate giant Nestle has agreed to stop using palm oil and other ingredients from suppliers that destroy the rainforest home of the last remaining orangutans in its popular snacks such as KitKat.’

The campaigning organisation also said, ‘Other large companies, such as Unilever and Kraft, have also taken action to end contracts with the Sinar Mas Group.’ Greenpeace’s website describes Sinar Mas as ‘the biggest and most destructive palm oil producer.’ It also says its campaign, ‘will now target HSBC. The High Street bank is funding Sinar Mas.’

Choosing sides

This brings into stark relief the choices we face in how we deal with and use advertising. If the sourcing or other elements of a product, like how it treats its employess, are potentially harmful to us or the planet, does that necessarily need to be illustrated in its advertising?

Or is the role of the regulator just to work out whether we find the advertising itself offensive? If it’s ok to force tobacco companies to use plain branding, should Nestle or HSBC be forced to do the same for using suppliers that are destroying our future resources, or print this information on their products?

Whatever we choose to do, the question is only going to become more important. The increasing power of mobile devices means that very soon, if not already, the vast majority of us are going to have advertising screened directly into our lives.

Especially where younger people are concerned, it’s going to be hard for parents to really know just what marketing companies are pushing onto their children.

From a wider perspective, it’s perhaps unrealistic to think that those consumer driven markets could totally be replaced by a culture that forces companies to illustrate the true cost of what they produce on their advertising.

However, markets generally drive innovation. The adaptability of mobile devices and things like augmented reality will provide opportunities for companies whose products are more environmentally or resource friendly to showcase this more easily.

Nowadays it’s easy to buy lenticular or optimised packaging that links into a mobile device through barcoding or other referencing. So buying tomorrow’s chocolate bar might open up a ‘smart’ video when held next to your phone’s camera, which explains how the bar was made and why you can feel better about buying it.

This might not only help better products sell more, it will make us think about why other companies aren’t offering similar insights into their production process, and what they might have to hide.

So really, the advances in today’s technology might do a lot more than all the rules in the world to open up the ‘hidden’ world of advertising, and let us see for ourselves which products we want to buy, and why.

What are your views?  Not sure? Read the resources below for more information. Add your comment below. We welcome your thoughts and proposals. Not a Planetary Citizen? Sign up to Our Future Planet today!

Read more articles with reference to Sustainable -socio-cultural#Articles" target="_blank">Society & Culture, Business and Environment. Sign up to our newsletter for twice monthly news.


Advertising Standards Agency Reports:
Alcoholic Drinks Advertisements Compliance Survey 2008

Alcohol advertising – the right measure? Stakeholder Consultation Event Report

Health and Beauty Products and Therapies Advertisements Survey 2009

Food and Soft Drink Advertising Survey 2009

YOUNG PEOPLE, MEDIA AND PERSONAL RELATIONSHIPS David Buckingham and Sara Bragg November 2003


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