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 Advertising Standards Association (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, Ofcom 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, John Wanamaker) 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, The Hidden Persuaders, 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 subliminal advertising – 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 Central Office of Intelligence 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.