How Advertising is Killing the Planet – And How We Can Stop It

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Everyone’s mind is constantly being bombarded with advertisements. Whether it’s for a new truck, the latest hamburger, or a home product that isn’t really needed, it’s hard to escape the barrage of commercials streaming out of every screen, page, and billboard we look at. And they’re effective too! The average company would lose about 12% of its sales without advertising. Well, that’s how the companies like to frame it. An environmentalist would frame it as “advertising makes us buy 14% more than we otherwise would”. But why is this such an issue?

How Does Buying More Hurt the Planet?

Every product bought must be produced, shipped, used, and disposed of. The first, second, and fourth steps here are especially damaging. The production process often includes harmful chemicals and different greenhouse gasses, some much more potent than CO2 (click here to read about greener manufacturing). Shipping requires enormous amounts of emissions and packaging. Keeping things safe across long journeys often uses lots of plastic, and the planes, boats, and trucks used to shuttle products around all emit lots of carbon. Finally, disposal adds extra stressors to the already overburdened planet. Recycling still needs to be more efficient to be an effective means of waste disposal, and the environmental impacts of landfills and incinerators are well-documented.

Not only do commercials influence buying decisions for individual products, but they also promote consumerism.

The stage of a product in a linear economy
The stage of a product in a linear economy

Consumerism

Consumerism is widespread in the developed world, especially in North America. Consumerism is the idea that personal satisfaction and happiness come from buying things. Advertising directly promotes this harmful idea by trying to get people to believe they need to buy more than they do.

Most people understand that phrases such as “buy now!”, “you need to try this product”, and “come taste perfection” are simply ploys by corporations to get you to buy their product. However, they still have significant subconscious effects. Because advertising is so widespread, people’s minds are constantly being told to buy, buy, buy, and the subconscious starts to believe that buying more is the right thing to do. This leads to more trips to the mall, a new car more often, more dinners eaten out, and most importantly, more waste that the planet has to find a way to deal with. The products that one buys because of commercials, the “extra 12%”, are the ones they need the least and are most likely to throw away. If you genuinely needed that product, it probably wouldn’t end up in the landfill as quickly as if advertising influenced you to buy it.

A Feeling, Not Practicality

Advertising has become centered around the feeling of having that product rather than what it provides to your life.

A buying decision can be seen as an evaluation of the pros and cons of a purchase. It is much easier for the brain to make a calculated decision when presented with the pros of a decision (usefulness of a product) and its cons (monetary cost, environmental impacts). The product’s added value to you is considered and weighed against the effect on your wallet and planet, and your brain can maximize the benefit received.

But, the days of long infomercials explaining the inner workings of a product are all but gone. Companies don’t want you to make a logical, calculated decision. They want just the opposite; for you to consume past what makes sense, past what is healthy for you and the planet. That’s why advertising has moved to play on emotions. When products are shown to make you feel a certain way, the brain has a harder time determining the right decision. The feelings that commercials show are very easy for the brain to understand, while the emotion of tapping your credit card or causing extra emissions and waste is much more abstract. So, people are much more likely to consume more.

Modern advertising hijacks decision-making, ensuring overconsumption and pushing the planet closer to destruction.

An emotional advertisement
An emotional advertisement

What Can Be Done?

Both governments and individuals can help fight this problem.

Regulating advertisements is essential to reducing consumer culture and ensuring proper buying decisions. Governments can mandate advertisements to focus on the facts about a product. What does it cost? What makes it better than competitors? How will it make your life better?

Another critical step governments can take is to require products’ environmental impacts to be mentioned during all ads. While this is hard to calculate, even a general tier system will make buying decisions better informed and more thoughtful while also helping to combat greenwashing. Both of these changes can be first implemented for major companies with large profit margins, keeping small businesses from significant decreases in sales while seriously decreasing overall consumption.

Individuals can combat advertising’s spread of overconsumption by celebrating good buying decisions among peers. Instead of praising a friend for the new product they just bought and how cool it makes them look, celebrate when they tell you they thought about buying something but realized they didn’t need it. Consumer culture is firmly rooted in most people’s minds, but this can be changed by actively celebrating its reduction.

Another good way to reduce the effect of advertising is by searching for non-material gifts for holidays. Advertising is the most prevalent around holidays, but you don’t need to listen to it. Instead of buying some cliché item, find an experience you can share or put effort into something homemade. This will probably be better appreciated anyway.

The final strategy is to be consistently critical of advertising. Be conscious of the fact that it is trying to trick your brain. Acknowledge the lack of factual information. Make fun of the hyperbolic claims with your friends; it’s fun! Approaching commercials with a critical mindset will help save the planet, and your wallet.

References

July 2018. (2018, July). Nice ad, shame about the planet. Do the Green Thing. https://dothegreenthing.com/issue/nice-ad-shame-about-the-planet/

Nikam, J. (2019). Transformational change through a circular economy. Www.sei.org. https://www.sei.org/publications/transformational-change-through-a-circular-economy/

Stürze, S. (2022). How much does Advertising drive Sales? Some Answers in 5 charts… Linkedin.com. https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/how-much-does-advertising-drive-sales-some-answers-5-charts-st%C3%BCrze/

Weber, I. (2018, December 5). 11 Emotional Advertising Examples Most Used by Brands. Creatopy Blog; Creatopy Blog. https://www.creatopy.com/blog/emotional-advertising-examples/

About Post Author

Simon Lindsay-Stodart

Simon is currently studying sustainability at McGill University with a minor in Political Science. He is passionate about sustainable urban development, state-level action, and individual sustainable lifestyle changes. He has been a passionate advocate for climate change prevention since he was very young, and likes to present ways to solve the problems we face as a society and as individuals.
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