Is advertising evil? Should we just ban it all?

Is advertising really evil?  Should we just ban it?  All of it?  In many countries, advertising of products such as tobacco or alcohol is heavily regulated or banned.  In the UK, the (ASA), has been operating a self-regulatory code since 1961 to ensure advertising is ‘legal, decent, honest and truthful.’  Over the years, this has added in plenty of restrictions on advertising in relation to violence or pornography, and particularly to protect young children.  Indeed, has just announced restrictions on advertising of high fat, salt and sugar (HFSS) foods to young children in the UK.  

Now the Wall Street Journal (subscription) reports that “a group representing Europe’s leading advertising agencies has drafted guidelines covering issues such as safety and the environment that — if adopted — would establish basic principles for ad agencies to follow when promoting cars.”  In attempts to self-regulate rather than face legal restrictions.

The “ban it” attitude assumes considerable power for advertising, implying it operates according to the “hypodermic” or “magic bullet” theory where the mass media persuades people against their will.  Indeed, Jos Dings of the environmental lobby European Federation for Transport and Environment accuses the car industry of “seducing consumers toward more powerful cars.” through advertising.

Is advertising really that powerful?  The argument against is that advertising can bring things to our attention, interest us, create positive or negative associations – but persuasion is a cognitive process, meaning ultimately we have to make a conscious decision to be influenced.  Working in the motor industry, I know it really isn’t easy to influence a car buying decision where there are many complex psychological and social factors involved.

Companies are increasingly questioning the value of advertising – particularly in traditional print and broadcast media.  An increasingly-sophisticated public is able to block out or doesn’t pay attention to most advertising – and there’s an old adage (accredited to US retail magnate, ) that “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half.”

The belief in the power of advertising dates to the 1950s – when Vance Packard’s book, , revealed techniques used to influence the public by marketers – notably the big US advertising agencies which (like Bernays before them) used psychologists to understand how to motivate American consumers.  This lead to a fear of – which falsly purported people can be subconscioulsy influenced to buy more products. 

If advertising is that powerful, how come it doesn’t work to stop people smoking, make them eat 5 fruit/veg a day, stop binge drinking etc.  Despite the producing hundreds of high profile public information campaigns, spending millions on advertising for over 60 years, it has not managed to readily alter public behaviour. 

So is advertising an evil force that needs to be constrained?  Would it hurt to ban the whole lot – not because of its power, but because most of it is rubbish, ineffective, annoying and not the cause or the answer to change for the increasingly complicated issues facing society.

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Heather Yaxley PhD

Dr. Heather Yaxley is passionate about sustainable careers, reflective practice and professional development. I am a rhizomatic educator, practitioner, consultant, academic and scholar. As a qualified academic, I teach the CIPR professional qualifications with PR Academy and have experience teaching at various Universities. I run the Motor Industry Public Affairs Association (MIPAA) and my own strategic consultancy. I was awarded by PhD researching Career Strategies in Public Relations by Bournemouth University in 2017. I'm a published author, with books, chapters and academic papers to my name.

6 thoughts on “Is advertising evil? Should we just ban it all?”

  1. Caroline – I am familiar with the Engage framework as one of the Diploma students based her project on analysing it in terms of two-way communications last year, so thanks for the reminder.

    Jill – my advice on protecting yourself against scams like the one you linked to is “common sense”. There have always been these types of promotional offers and normally there are alarm bells ringing from the tone and approach of those who are selling it. Also, if you are checking out the return, business benefits, and so on in a professional manner, such offers normally soon jump out at you as a bit dodgy.

  2. What’s this sinister organisation you know about (but the rest of us have never heard of)? Conspiracy theorists gather round. Central Intelligence Agency … Central Office of Intelligence. Oh, it’s the dull old Central Office of Information, the government’s in-house publicity machine.

  3. I was clearly typing faster than my brain was checking content, I’m afraid. It might be nice if it was the Central Office of Intelligence rather than Information – so maybe it was a subliminal slip of the fingers…

  4. Why won’t people stop smoking and binge drinking and start eating 5 vegetables a day? Well, they have, for the most part.

    Smoking bans are grabbing whole cities across the state. Weird diets that make you a supermodel are all the rave, with whole magazines divulging on the subject; my guy friends are hopping on protein diets. Beer is quickly becoming the drink of choice against liquor for more responsible drinking.

    Advertising is subliminal. It creates a materialist society against it’s better judgment.

    And yes, the whole lot should be banned. And no, it won’t hurt businesses to not have billboards and pop-up windows and classifieds. Craig’s List has stolen just that and Newspapers are bouncing back around 2012. People find what they are looking for; telling them what they are looking for undermines human intelligence and is therefore a threat to democracy and standards of living everywhere.

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