To face the climate emergency, the quantity we consume must drop considerably. Yet every day we are told to consume more. We all know about air pollution – but there is a kind of “brain pollution” produced by advertising that, unchecked, fuels overconsumption. And the problem is getting worse.
Advertising is everywhere, so widespread that it is invisible, but with an effect no less insidious than air pollution. A few years ago, it was estimated that an individual in the United States was exposed to between 4,000 and 10,000 advertisements per day.
UK ad spend nearly doubled between 2010 and 2019, and after a pandemic decline, spending of £ 23bn for 2020 is expected to increase by 15% in 2021. It’s built into our personal communications every time we do it. use social media platforms. In public spaces, where we have little choice over where we look, advertisements are intrusive, appearing without our consent. And the trend towards digital billboards is only exposing us more and more. Some large companies even brag that digital screens are “a must have” on busy roads, “captivating the public” when drivers better watch the road. Such roadside “out-of-home” advertising is expected to increase by 25% in 2021 and the evolution of advertising technologies that could use facial detection and tracking capabilities only increases the sense of invasion of our privacy. .
Advertising works by going under your radar, introducing new ideas without disturbing your conscious mind. Extensive scientific research shows that when exposed to advertising, people “buy into” the values and materialistic goals that it promotes. As a result, they report lower levels of personal well-being, experience conflict in relationships, engage in fewer positive social behaviors, and experience detrimental effects on school and work. Importantly, the more people prioritize materialistic values and goals, the less they adopt positive attitudes towards the environment – and the more likely they are to behave in harmful ways.
Even worse, discoveries in neuroscience reveal that advertising goes so far as to lodge itself in the brain, rewiring it, forming physical structures and causing permanent change. Familiar brands through advertising have a strong influence on the choices people make. On MRI scans, recognizable car brand logos activate a single, particular region of the brain in the median prefrontal cortex. Brands and logos have also been shown to generate strong preferences between virtually identical products, such as soft drinks, preferences that disappear in blind tests. Researchers seeking to gauge the potency of advertised brands concluded that “there are visual images and marketing messages that have crept into the nervous system of humans.”
Indeed, some of the early work in this area concluded, “As scary as it sounds, if an ad doesn’t change the brain of the target audience, then it didn’t work.” Yet this is little known more widely. Through a combination of experience and advertising exposure linked to emotional responses, brands and their logos become more “mentally available”. This involves the development of new neural pathways reinforced by repeated encounters. Other research shows how exposure to different brands can influence behavior, such as making them behave in less honest or creative ways. Customizable neural profiling tools are now available to test the effectiveness of brands and logos on consumers, resulting in what is now called “neuromarketing”.
This is bad enough for adults, but children are now at the mercy of what is called “surveillance advertising”. It is estimated that by the time a child turns 13, ad technology companies will have collected 72 million data points on them. The more data collected from an early age, the easier it is for advertisers to turn young children into consumer targets.
Overconsumption in general, encouraged by advertising, has a climatic and ecological impact. But advertising for highly polluting products and services, such as fossil fuels, aviation and gasoline cars, is particularly damaging. It’s like when tobacco ads were allowed. In 2018, the automotive industry is estimated to have spent more than $ 35.5 billion on advertising in major markets around the world, roughly the equivalent of the annual income of a country like Bolivia. And, in recent years, publicity has driven people to buy bigger, more polluting SUVs.
Regulators are very far behind on these issues. The Competition and Markets Authority recently launched a public consultation to investigate the misleading green claims. The regulator of advertising, the Advertising Standards Authority, followed suit late by committing to develop a code on greenwashing. But the ASA is a weak body with a narrow focus, paid for by industry, which does indeed do its own homework. Only 22% of advertisements that are the subject of a complaint are investigated by the ASA, and then only 2% of complaints are accepted, by which time the advertising campaign is usually closed.
Tackling “brain pollution” requires action equivalent to the campaign to end tobacco advertising. New checks and balances must take into account the natural concerns of councils and residents about climate, air pollution, environmental light pollution, the ‘attention economy’, mental health and the dominance of advertisements non-consensual in public spaces.
The ad, the attention-seeking affair, has ironically avoided scrutiny so far. But as the climate crisis intensifies, its role is poised to increase on the agenda. Campaigners call for legislation against high carbon advertising, focusing on fossil fuel companies, gasoline and diesel powered cars, and aviation; at the municipal level, cities like Norwich, Liverpool and North Somerset are implementing measures to end high carbon advertising; and an EU-wide campaign now follows the Amsterdam metro ban. Tackling brain pollution will not only make us feel better, but will also help clean the air.