An Australian friend Sally Hill tweeted us with this interesting piece by Greg Foyster on the ecological consequences of advertising. We highly recommend reading it but want to offer up a response to the question that inevitably follows the identification of a problem: ‘what is to be done about it?’
The article uses the recent phenomenon of the advertising industry advertising itself, as a launch pad to ask two deeper questions. They are usefully related. The first question focuses on the morality of the techniques used by advertisers – is it OK to manipulate human emotions to sell commodities and junk food? The second question asks whether the ad industry can continue to separate itself from any blame attached to the ecological consequences of consumerism? By asking both questions, in one article, it is bringing them together in a way that the Sustainability movement is beginning to do and drastically needs to get better at doing. By doing this, environmentalists can come together with allies in many other sectors to work towards a common goal.
It seems clear to us that consumerism is simultaneously having negative impacts on ecological and human wellbeing. It is a phenomenon that needs to be understood, questioned and, ultimately, reined in if a truly sustainable world is ever going to emerge. Through the ad industry, consumerism is driven by – in the main – the reinforcement of extrinsic values such as status, image and power. This process is followed up by the message that we are lacking in all three and need to do something about it if we want to be accepted by our peers and wider society (which, by the way, we should want to be!) Added to this, as Kasser and colleagues show, the ad industry downplays the value we attach to things like inner harmony, wisdom, helpfulness, equality and mature love. More accurately, it warps our understanding of how to respond to the holding of such ‘intrinsic’ values. For example, if it promotes ‘care for the environment’ to sell us a hybrid car, it also promotes the social status and image benefits that we will also gain by owning such a car. It therefore undermines the much needed reinforcement of intrinsic values, by also reinforcing extrinsic values.
Other examples are more subtle. Ads (not to mention product placement) tell us that junk food will make us intrinsically happy (full up) and popular. For example, we’re told that coca cola is cool and that our peers will think we’re cool if we drink it. ‘Better still’, they tell us, ‘buy a Coke for someone as a way to gain their friendship.’ All we wanted was some energy and some friends.
The examples are endless: mobile phones (to connect and be fashionable); apple laptops (to be wise and popular); and conspicuous donations to charity (to care for others and be popular). Take a look at the Common Cause work on valuesandframes.org to gain a deeper understanding of the importance of reinforcing intrinsic values.
Through our work here at Waste Watch we are exploring ways to tackle environmental problems (our traditional domain) by getting to the root of the problem. We’re discovering that our impacts cut across many other areas too. Consumerism and the associated over consumption of resources is close to the root of the problems we are working on, but we felt the need to ask what it is that underpins consumerism and work from there. It seems to be driven by the high prevalence of extrinsic values that are promoted and reinforced through advertising, celebrity culture and an ‘everyone for themselves’ culture. Increasingly, at Waste Watch, we are exploring what influences the values that people and society hold dearest. This is the level we believe that we (as a charity programme and we, as a sustainability movement) need to dig down to make a significant impact. Whether we like it or not, we, as Waste Watch, have an influence on the values of those we engage with. If we are to have an influence, we want that influence to be a positive one. Therefore in the design and delivery of our programmes we are following a core guiding principle; we are ‘working from values’.
As a bare minimum we try not to appeal to (and therefore reinforce) extrinsic values in any of our communications. We also consciously appeal to intrinsic values and are conspicuous in doing it. We do this with pride and are happy to say we care.
At a deeper level we are encouraging those we engage with to question extrinsic values and let go of unhealthy over-obsessions with status, image and power. We are complementing this by helping people to connect, be active, take notice, learn and give in genuinely fulfilling ways that are both socially and environmentally responsible. We have a shorthand for this: Live More, Waste Less.
Through our work programmes we are trying to build the confidence and ability of people to align their actions with their intrinsic values. The result, we hope, will be lower levels of material consumption as people discover that good life is not met through excessive material consumption.
By ‘working from values’ we do not necessarily talk about ‘the environment’ all of the time, indeed we recognise that we are not merely an environmental charity these days. Through focusing on the root causes of environmental problems we recognise that we can have positive impacts on the wellbeing of communities, schools and businesses as well the people who live, learn and work in them. We are working for the social changes that will bring environmental changes; the environment and society are inextricably linked.
Greg Foyster’s article resonated with us and aligns with our new work programme ‘Revaluing Childhood and Adolescence’. Having recognised the role of the ad industry in shaping and manipulating what we value we have started to engage with it head on. Head of Waste Watch, Tim Burns’ paper on Growing up in a commercial world was published recently and we are teaming up with the authors of ‘Think of me as evil?’ to campaign directly on these issues.
Look out for more events, publications, blog posts and work programmes in the future.