Jo face the climate emergency, the amount we consume must drop drastically. 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 which, uncontrolled, fuels overconsumption. And the problem is getting worse.
Advertising is everywhere, so present 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 ads per day.
UK ad spend nearly doubled between 2010 and 2019 and, after a pandemic dip, 2020 spend of £23bn is set to increase by 15% in 2021. It is embedded in our personal communications every time that we use social media platforms. In public spaces, where we have little choice about where we look, advertisements are intrusive, appearing without our consent. And the trend towards digital billboards only exposes us more and more. Some Large companies even brag about how digital screens are “indispensable” on busy roads, “engaging the public” when drivers had better watch the road. This “out of home” roadside advertising is expected to grow by 25% in 2021 and evolution of advertising technologies who might use face detection and tracking capabilities only increase the sense of invasion of our privacy.
Advertising works by flying under your radar, introducing new ideas without disturbing your conscious mind. Extensive scientific research shows that when exposed to advertising, people “buy in” to the values and materialistic goals it promotes. As a result, they report lower levels of personal well-being, experience conflict in their relationships, engage in fewer positive social behaviors, and experience adverse effects in school and work. Importantly, the more people prioritize materialistic values and goals, the less positive attitudes they hold toward the environment — and the more likely they are to behave in detrimental 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 changes. Brands that have been made familiar through advertising have a strong influence on the choices people make. Under MRI, recognizable car brand logos activate only one particular region of the brain in the medial prefrontal cortex. Trademarks 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 assess the potency of advertised brands concluded that “there are visual images and marketing messages that have insinuated themselves into the nervous system of humans”.
Indeed, some of first works in this area concluded, “As scary as it sounds, if an ad doesn’t alter the brains of the intended audience, then it didn’t work.” Yet this is little known more widely. Through a combination of experience and advertising exposure tied to emotional reactions, brands and their logos become more “mentally available”. This requires the development of new neural pathways reinforced by repeated encounters. Still other research demonstrates how exposure to different brands can influence behavior, for example by making them behave less honestly or creatively. Customizable tools for neural profiling are now available to test the effectiveness of brands and logos on consumers, giving rise to what has come to be known as “neuromarketing”.
It’s bad enough for adults, but children are now at the mercy of so-called “supervised advertising”. It is estimated that by the time a child turns 13, ad tech companies will have gathered 72 million data points on them. The more data collected at 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-powered cars, is particularly damaging. It’s like the days when tobacco ads were allowed. In 2018, the automotive sector is estimated to have spent more than $35.5 billion in advertising in major global markets, roughly equal to the annual income of a country like Bolivia. And, in recent years, advertising has pushed a major shift toward people buying bigger, dirtier SUVs.
Regulators are way behind on these issues. The Competition and Markets Authority has just launched a public consultation for investigate misleading green claims. The advertising regulator, the Advertising Standards Authority, belatedly followed suit, pledging to develop code on greenwashing. But the ASA is a weak, narrow-minded, industry-paid body that effectively marks its own homework. Only 22% of complained ads are investigated by the ASA, and then only 2% of complaints are upheld, by which time the ad campaign is typically over.
Tackling “brain pollution” requires action equivalent to the campaign to end tobacco advertising. New checks and balances must address councils’ and residents’ natural concerns about climate, air pollution, environmental light pollution, the ‘attention economy’, mental health and the dominance of advertisements non-consensual in public spaces.
Attention-grabbing advertising has ironically escaped scrutiny until now. But as the climate crisis rages, its role is set to become a priority. Activists call for legislation against high carbon advertising, focusing on fossil fuel businesses, gasoline and diesel-powered cars and aviation; at the municipal level, places like NorwichLiverpool and North Somerset put in place measures to end high-carbon advertising; And one EU wide campaign now follows a amsterdam metro ban. Fight against brain pollution will not only make us feel better, but also help purify the air.