For many years the subject of responsibility in advertising and its impact on the economy, politics and society has been much debated. It has regularly been a prominent subject in the media, with issues ranging from Brexit to obesity.
Societal and ethical debates arose as early as 1900. Back in the early 20th century advertising was already criticised for its misleading nature, and then in the 1930s its manipulative nature. Many also remember Naomi Klein’s international bestseller ‘No logo,’ published in 2000, which decried the weaponising of advertising by multinationals. Klein’s target was of course not only advertising, but the communication industry as a whole.
Society maintains a paradoxical relationship to advertising, and communications in general. The debates surrounding these sectors, which are becoming ever more prominent, are complex, confusing and have given rise to a certain level of confusion and misunderstandings.
Much of the criticism of advertising and communications is because they symbolise power. Power that is used not only to undermine our personal integrity, but even more ominously, undermines the integrity of democratic political systems by playing fast and loose with facts, and asserting unbalanced and biased views. We criticise them because they influence our thoughts and behaviour. And of course, to acknowledge this influence is to acknowledge our own individual irrationality, and this is uncomfortable.
Advertising and communication are also criticised because they showcase the commercial nature of our society and the global commodification of society. This also involves our growing anxiety about the whole capitalistic system and its inbuilt excesses, which uses advertising primarily for short-term financial gains, with disastrous consequences for the environment.
These days, the ecological and social emergencies we are facing collectively have become ever more discussed and disputed, as well as the role and impact of communications on all this. In this context, it is completely legitimate and even necessary to question the place of communication and its impact. We need to depart from existing destructive practices, such as inciting over-consumption or the creation of obsolete social models that are no longer acceptable.
Things may have improved a little over recent years in, for example, how women are portrayed in advertising. But in this and so many other areas, including extreme consumerism and the constant exhortations for us to pay less and less for things, there is huge room for improvement.
However, by criticising advertising on principle, perhaps we forget that advertising and communications are merely disciplines, tools, practices which can have a positive or negative impact depending on how they are used. Not some entity outside our control. They are just what we make of them.
Advertising and communication also exist outside multinationals and the world of commerce. Personal use of social media and ‘word of mouth’ is all part of it, not to mention public bodies’ messages about, for example, health issues like Covid.
It is therefore important to avoid lumping every instance of advertising all together and turning every manifestation of this discipline, this sector and its players, into scapegoats for all the world’s evils. That would be both simplistic and dangerous.
On the contrary, we must now use the potential of advertising and communications to support the transition to a more sustainable future. Of course, we need to continue to criticise and monitor bad practice, but since it is vital to act and build this transition and since advertising and communication are capable of influencing for the good, let’s actively and positively mobilise them. Because they can help reassure, unite, and support changes in consumption.
Professor Florence Touzé is head of the communication and culture department at the Audencia Nantes School of Management.