Aptly named Think of Me As Evil? Opening the Ethical Debates in Advertising, it wrote, “while the evidence is not conclusive, it seems that advertising may be encouraging society to save less, borrow more, work harder and consume greater quantities of material goods.” That may seem obvious, but its effects run deeper than that, transforming social norms and values and even stiflingsocial change, in particular our willingness to take steps to save the environment.
“There is evidence that advertising may have significant negative cultural impacts: increasing our ecological footprint by boosting consumption; influencing our values and identities in ways that undermine our concern about social and environmental challenges; and eroding well-being and freedom of choice,” the report noted.
The real battle for hearts and minds
Testing and building on the ideas of social psychologist Shalom Schwartz, researchers have unearthed a set of values common to various cultures and societies spanning centuries. The report highlights the distinction between values that are intrinsic – a sense of community, self-acceptance, benevolence, and universalism: a respect for the welfare of all beings – versus extrinsic, primarily self-centred values dependent on the perceptions of others, characterised by a desire to conform or ‘fit in’, protect self-image, and compete with others for financial success, personal achievement and power.
Extrinsic values translate to “higher levels of prejudice, less concern about the environment and lower motivation to engage in corresponding behaviors, and weak (or absent) concern about human rights,”while hindering personal well-being, as life turns into into an uphill battle for more.
As it relates to the environment, studies in the US and the UK show that adolescents who identify more strongly with extrinsic values are less likely to save electricity, reuse paper, or recycle. “Similar findings have been reported for American adults, among whom extrinsic values are found to be negatively correlated with the frequency of pro-environmental behaviors such as riding a bicycle, reusing paper, buying second-hand, and recycling,” wrote the report.
So where does Advertising come in? Advertising shifts social norms from intrinsic values to extrinsic ones. Said the report,“the great majority of advertising money is spent in ways that appeal to extrinsic values—that is, values associated with lower motivation to address social or environmental problems.
Regardless of the product, advertising feeds into contemporary culture’s triple axis of rampant, commercialism, consumerism, and materialism, the very ism’s numerousstudies consistently point out fail to bring happiness.
Advertising lures us in to shop, to buy, to consume – and punishes us with hooks of guilt whenwe fall short of the standards of Consumer Society where the unabashed pursuit of wealth is glorified as righteous while the masses who fail to climb up the ladder of opulence are summarily dismissed as lazy, or unblessed, or genetically weak, thus unfit to live.
Society has been kept in a perpetual state of infancy, where the childish urge to own everything, ASAP, is elevated to sacred status. All this, at a time when Earth’s resources have been stretched to the limit and funnelled toward the consumerist few with the money at their disposal, leaving precious little for the vast majority of the world’s poor. Not to mention for future generations.
The distinction between ‘citizen’ and ‘consumer’ in modern society is a blur, with nearly every relationship, act of political leadership and social transaction now underwritten in the context of “what is in it for me”.In the Philippines, consumerism cuts across class boundaries, with lower income families just as likely to borrow money to splurge on ‘wants’ like a television set, lottery tickets or processed food, as the wealthier swipe a credit card for a Prada handbag, a two hundred peso latte, and pricey but otherwise worthless antiques,all bought at the expense of more pressing needs like education and nutritious food… or in the case of the rich, charity and taxes.
But for many of the poor, consumption is likely a matter of survival. Their options for entertainment are limited to the local TV network-based televisions common in slums, temptingly blaring out commercials and images of high-status lifestyles, twenty four-seven.
Filipino urban society is doubtless consumer-oriented. It would not be unpatriotic to claim that the heroes we worship -the Azkals, Manny Pacquiao – have all been hijacked, compromised, co-opted, and masqueraded as still more icons of consumer culture. Alcoholic athletes on beer commercials, anyone?
Playing up the classic tricks of the advertising trade – emotional impact, make them cry, and flash the brand- Coca Cola exploited the plight of OFWs last December, in an online video that went viral almost instantly, Where Will Happiness strike next: The OFW Project.
The barefaced title highlights a company’s desperate attempt to equate happiness with an overrated diabetes inducing, fizzy sugar drink. While it may have been a heart-warmer, it probably left the participants of the “project” and their families indebted to a transnational corporation that likely plays a key role in depressing wages in the country and causing the OFW phenomenon in the first place.
It also suggests regularly pigging out on soda as a means to unite the family.
Advertisers have long countered that ads do not convince us to simply consume overall, and therefore have no impact since they simply “redistribute” consumption, shifting customers away from one product, say, Conditioner A with seaweed extracts to another, Conditioner B, also with seaweed extracts.
The evidence proves otherwise. The WWF report follows up, “ that advertising does … increase aggregate material consumption, it can be pinpointed as an engine of the least sustainable aspects of an economy that is currently using up resources, destroying ecosystems and creating pollution at an unsustainable rate. Such trends, in turn, threaten to exacerbate global poverty and pose grave challenges for just and equitable development.”
DISCLAIMER: This advertisement may influence you in ways of which you are not consciously aware. Buying consumer goods is unlikely to improve your wellbeing and borrowing to buy consumer goods may be unwise; debt can enslave.