Why does it matter? The detrimental impacts of advertising’s brain pollution on mental health, human behaviour and relationships are well established.
The pursuit of the materialistic goals it encourages undermines individuals’ wellbeing.
When brain pollution enters the human body it makes us feel we are lacking something, triggers feelings of inadequacy and exploits our insecurities.
Marketing strategies directed at women in particular exploit bodily insecurities by promoting ‘beauty ideals’ that are only possible to reach by buying this or that product.
In studies, brain pollution is also seen to contaminate the human sense of care and compassion towards others – exactly the kind of important behaviours on display during the global coronavirus pandemic that helped pull so many through, and which are vital in confronting the climate emergency too.
But, exposure to adverts lead us to focus more on so-called ‘extrinsic values’, those guiding our sense of competitiveness and greed through conformity, image, financial success, achievement and power – and less on ‘intrinsic values‘ those that govern our feelings of empathy and caring towards others, expressed through affiliation, self-acceptance, community feeling, benevolence.
Advertising sets out to increase the consumption of products and services and the sector is getting bigger. But overconsumption of superfluous, non-essential goods is driving planetary breakdown.
Polluting, high-carbon, consumer lifestyles promoted by advertising are an obstacle to reaching safe climate and ecological targets. Adverts promoting large cars and privileged, frivolous flying are especially dangerous.
Over the last ten years, for example, brain pollution from car manufacturers selling large, high pollution ‘sports utility vehicles’ (SUVs) has risen dramatically.
In 2018, car maker Ford reportedly spent 85 percent of its advertising budget promoting SUVs and light trucks in the USA, a rise from 50 percent just two years earlier.
In 2019 the International Environment Agency (IEA) noted that SUVs were the second biggest cause of increasing CO2 emissions (after power generation, but ahead of aviation and heavy industry).
This type of advertising is not only fuelling our climate and nature crises but is promoting the burning of fossil fuels which chokes our towns and cities and whose air pollution in total was responsible for an estimated 8.7 million deaths in 2018.
The latest research shows that is more than the obvious examples too. In the case of advertising for beef and tobacco products there are clear links between advertising and the climate and ecological emergency.
As the latest IPCC report warned of a “code red” for humanity, the Ministry for the Climate Emergency campaign is trying to achieve greater public awareness of the dangers of brain pollution and the urgent need for more controls on the most damaging forms of advertising.
Who is responsible? Many advertising agencies have major polluters as clients.
London is a major centre, with companies such as Wavemaker working for the likes of Chevron, Texaco and Heathrow, UM has clients such as Exxon Mobil, Statoil and airline Emirates, and Mindshare clients like BP, Gazprom and Black Rock, all according to adbrands.net. There are many more.
When it comes to regulating advertising national regulatory bodies are in charge of policing commercial adverts and ensuring that adverts meet their codes of conduct and guidelines.
But instead of providing safeguards against the potential detrimental impacts of advertising on human wellbeing and nature – research shows that these bodies too often are enabling rather than checking the industry.
Would you trust health professionals charged with reducing the impacts of smoking on the public if its governing body included members of the tobacco industry? This, however, is how the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) – the UK advertising regulator – operates.
Representatives of the industry are effectively given the power to write their own rules.
Similarly, regulators in the National Advertising Division of Better Business Bureau in the United States and the Reklamombudsmannen (Advertising ombudsman) in Sweden are directly funded by the industry and governed by a process of self-regulation.
Research in the Journal of European Consumer and Market Law points at the ineffectiveness and inconsistencies of both the UK and Dutch advertising regulators, the Dutch Reclame Code Commissie, when it comes to regulating advertising by fossil fuel companies.
The process for removing harmful adverts is also cumbersome, and relies entirely on individuals’ willingness to file complaints.
Advertising regulators will then only consider those complaints if they are proven to be in breach of their own, often narrow, codes of conduct.
And even in those cases it is not yet guaranteed that they will follow through with them.
But these codes are far from being adapted to changing political and social contexts or new urgent challenges like the climate emergency.
For instance they are not taking into account dangers posed by the rise in green marketing claims by major polluters in the car, aviation and energy industries.
Responding to the scale of this threat, in the UK recently, it took a different body, the Competition & Markets Authority, to launch a public consultation investigating misleading green claims, with the ASA only belatedly saying it will update its codes.
So far no regulations have been written to restrict greenwashing in particular.
When it comes to planning regulations that control advertising at the local level, current policies and guidance are out-dated and do not accommodate the natural concerns of councils and residents around a wide range of issues, from climate, to air pollution, environmental light pollution, the ‘attention economy’, mental health and the dominance of non-consensual adverts in public spaces.
Things have changed greatly too since existing rules were made, with the rising number of applications for digital brain pollution screens and changing advertising technologies that use facial detection and tracking capabilities.
Thousands of local authorities across the world have now declared a climate emergency and some are legally required to deliver on their zero carbon pledges.
Controls on the most damaging forms of advertising – for high-carbon goods and services – should now be included in those policies.
What can be done about it? Campaigns are now calling for legislation against high carbon advertising with a particular focus on fossil fuel companies, internal combustion engine cars and aviation.
The Badvertising campaign is also calling on local authorities to follow the example of local councils like Norwich, Liverpool and North Somerset in the UK and Amsterdam in the Netherlands in taking measures to end high-carbon advertising.
Governments and local authorities can use their powers to reduce brain pollution and stop adverts fuelling the climate emergency and several other cities around the world such as Grenoble, São Paulo, and Geneva have also taken steps to combat the effects of brain pollution caused by advertising.
Individuals can get involved, and officials and elected representatives find out more by going to badverts.org/action where you can watch the Ministry’s public information film or search #BrainPollution #Badvertising.
Andrew Simms is co-director of the New Weather Institute, coordinator of the Rapid Transition Alliance, author of several books on new and green economics and co-author of the original Green New Deal. He is on twitter at @AndrewSimms_uk.
Emilie Tricarico is a researcher and writer into social and ecological transitions and is cofounder of SEEKonomics. She tweets at @EmilieTricarico.