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Think of me as evil? Or laughable?

Opinion, 29 November 2011

I find myself once again moved to speak out against another piece of 24 carat nonsense – this time in the shape of the PIRC report into the ethics of advertising: "Think of me as evil?". I speak as someone who is in many ways supportive of the underlying aim of the authors: to stem the tide of unsustainable consumerism that threatens to irreparably harm the planet.

Sadly, I fear the report does more harm to this cause than good.

For me, the principal and unforgiveable fallacy of the report is the assumption that advertising's only effect is to increase volume consumption. This is unforgiveable for two reasons. First, because it is naïve. Advertising's most valuable effect is to protect the profitability of brands and their ability to invest in improvement by enabling them to assert pricing above "commodity levels". Put simply, with good advertising a brand can grow its revenues by improving quality rather than selling more volume.

Which brings me to the second unforgiveable facet. If you rob brands of this ability to defend pricing then their only route to growth is a spiral of ever greater volume consumption: fuelling the replacement cycle and usage through planned obsolescence and the many other ways detested by environmentally responsible people. The authors of the report perhaps wish for a zero (or negative) growth economy – but hopefully there is sufficient evidence of the likely societal effect of this already on display around Europe to persuade them otherwise.

I believe the only hope for the Earth is to enable businesses to grow whilst reducing their demands on the resources and atmosphere of the planet. Brands and their advertising have a vital role to play in this by encouraging consumers to "trade up" to the – inevitably more expensive – green replacements. If that means using Hollywood stars to make these green alternatives objects of desire rather than symbols of sacrifice, then so be it. Frankly it is laughable to suggest that doing so is likely to make people less concerned about the environment (promoting "extrinsic values by encouraging status competition and social comparison").

The authors should know well that product experience is much more important to future usage than the advertising that might have recruited those users in the first place. The experience of driving a hybrid car, for example, is likely to encourage continued hybrid purchasing. What matters is getting people to take the first expensive step to the green alternative and thereby creating a virtuous circle. If seeing Demi Moore or Dustin Hoffman driving a Toyota Prius reassures potential buyers that it is not "weird" to do so, then that is a victory for the environmental cause, not a setback.

This is not the only example of how the authors of the report allow their thinly-veiled disdain for advertising to blind them to its potential benefits for their own cause. There is a growing amount of advertising playing to the agenda of corporate social responsibility – a few well-known examples are begrudgingly acknowledged in the report, but with the astonishing rider that "where these (intrinsic values) are self-evidently used opportunistically, may actually serve to undermine a person's belief in the integrity with which others express these values, thereby diminishing the importance that they attach to these values when they encounter them elsewhere". This is a patronising perspective on the intelligence and perceptiveness of people, to say the least.

So, on the one hand the report criticises advertisers for relentlessly championing extrinsic values that lead people "to display a reduced concern about environmental and social issues," whilst on the other, it sneers at attempts to invoke intrinsic values, despite the fact that increasingly these are furthering the environmental agenda and raising environmental consciousness.

Advertising is damned if it does and damned if it doesn't.

The report's hopelessly biased argument reaches a climax that is truly beyond parody, with its (apparently) earnest proposal that all poster advertising should carry a health warning thus: "This advertisement may influence you in ways of which you are not consciously aware. Buying consumer goods is unlikely to improve your wellbeing and borrowing to buy consumer goods may be unwise; debt can enslave".

Come on guys – have you any idea what seething derision for the environmental cause would ensue such an outcome? I don't want that, and, I suspect, nor do most marketers.

About the author

Left Field is written by Peter Field. Peter Field has been a marketing consultant for the past 10 years. Before that, he ran the account planning departments at Bates and Grey. He set up the IPA dataBANK in 1996 and was a judge of the IPA Effectiveness Awards in 1998. He is an honorary Fellow of the IPA.