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Trevor Hancock: The toxic effects of advertising on our health

Getting people to want and purchase more has adverse effects on both people and the planet
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Ads for Budweiser at a hotel in Doha, Qatar, during the 2022 World Cup. In addition to effects on our personal wellbeing, advertising also impacts planetary health by encouraging more and more consumption of just about everything, Trevor Hancock writes. JON GAMBRELL, AP

Last week, I looked at one of the underpinnings of our economic system, the financial sector. This week, I turn to another key sector that is often overlooked – the advertising industry. It is a huge industry. Forbes recently reported that Magna, a major media and ­communications company, expects the global ad spend in 2024 “to increase by 7.2 per cent, totalling $914 billion,” with more than two-thirds of that spent on digital media.

Almost all of that nearly $1 trillion expenditure — equal to about 40 per cent of the entire global auto manufacturing industry — is focused on encouraging and celebrating consumption, and getting people to want and purchase more. But this has adverse effects on both people and the planet.

Clearly, people are harmed directly when ­advertising encourages the consumption — or over-consumption — of health-damaging products such as tobacco, unhealthy foods, alcohol, breast-milk substitutes, ­gambling or a host of other products. But what I think we need to focus on is the harmful effects of advertising in ­general, regardless of the product being marketed.

Almost 2,500 years ago, the Greek philosopher ­Epicurus wrote: “Do not spoil what you have by ­desiring what you have not,” a sentiment echoed by the 19th-century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche: ­“Happiness is continuing to desire what you already possess.” Or as American singer and actor RuPaul put it, very simply: “Happiness is wanting what you already have.”

But commercial advertising, of course, is about the very opposite of this. It is about persuading you that happiness is about possessing what you don’t have, to want more of something you already have, or to envy the experiences that others are having. It fosters not just envy and greed, but anxiety about lacking what you don’t have — ask the parents of any child who feels left out and looked down upon if they don’t have the latest gadget or sneakers or whatever.

In a pamphlet on the impacts of advertising on ­mental health, Adfree Cities — a U.K.-based campaign to end all corporate outdoor advertising — notes: “Advertising often presents us with an unrealistic picture of happiness, often tied to notions of glamour, money, power and possessions. As we struggle to live up to this we can feel that we’ve failed no matter how much we spend.” In the end, then, advertising creates unhappiness.

A 2020 article in the Harvard Business Review highlighted the work of a European research team that looked at the relationship between advertising and the happiness of nations. The researchers looked at roughly one million people surveyed over 30 years across 27 European nations. They found “that increases in national advertising expenditure are followed by ­significant declines in levels of life satisfaction.”

One of the team, Andrew Oswald, professor of ­economics and behavioural science at the University of Warwick, noted: “If you doubled advertising spending, it would result in a three per cent drop in life ­satisfaction.” That may not seem very much, but it is “about half the drop in life satisfaction you’d see in a person who had gotten divorced or about one-third the drop you’d see in someone who’d become unemployed,” meaning “advertising has sizable consequences.”

In addition to effects on our personal well­being, advertising also impacts planetary health by encouraging more and more consumption of just about everything. Consumption is at the root of our global ecological crisis; more ‘stuff’ extracted for a growing population with growing demands from an ­increasingly damaged and over-exploited environment spells ­trouble. So urging people to want more stuff — ­super-sized meals, more energy, larger cars, more ­trinkets, more everything — is going to increase the harm we do to Earth and, thus, to ourselves.

“Badvertising” is a campaign in the UK ­committed to stopping adverts and sponsorships fuelling the ­climate emergency. They point out: “We ended tobacco ­advertising when we understood the harm done by smoking. Now we know the damage done by fossil fuel products and activities, it’s time to stop promoting them.”

I agree. But I would suggest we expand this idea even further, to target all advertising that encourages activities that harm Earth and damage our health. The last thing we need is encouragement to lead more unhappy, unhealthy and planet-damaging lives.

thancock@uvic.ca

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy.

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