Climate change: can ad-induced “brain pollution” be the real problem?

Remember when subliminal advertising was deemed a threat to humankind? No? Well it was “the use by advertisers of images and sounds to influence consumers’ responses without their being consciously aware of it.” First discovered, allegedly, in 1947 when it was used to flog US War Bonds.

Now, you may not be surprised to learn, the Guardian is back on the case, this time with a piece by Andrew Simms, described as an author and campaigner. This time advertising is blamed for the climate crisis – via “brain pollution,” as Simms calls it.

His point briefly is that there are so many ads these days – he reckons we’re exposed to between 4,000 and 10,000 day (all in the cause of “over-consumption”) – that they lodge in the brain and make us do things we don’t want to. Not only that, they prompt “lower levels of personal wellbeing, experience conflict in relationships, engage in fewer positive social behaviours, and experience detrimental effects on study and work. Critically, the more that people prioritise materialistic values and goals, the less they embrace positive attitudes towards the environment – and the more likely they are to behave in damaging ways.”

Simms particularly dislikes digital Out of Home ads: “In public spaces, where we have little choice over where we look, adverts are invasive, appearing without our consent. And the trend towards digital billboards only exposes us ever more. Some big companies even boast about how ‘unmissable’ digital screens are on busy roads, ‘captivating audiences’ when drivers would be better off watching the road.”

Advertising can, indeed, be invasive and, yes, it does lodge in the brain in the sense that you recognise some brands more than others. In its time the marketing industry has had more than its fair share of snake oil merchants although their doings rather pale into insignificance in comparison to the welter of fake news and the like populating today’s social media.

Arguably the most detrimental effect of advertising is the sheer tedium/loss of faith in human ingenuity that, say, constant exposure to Kevin Bacon’s EE ads induces. But brain pollution? A bit strong surely.

As for climate change, every advertiser under the sun seems to be telling us it’s on the side of the angels. Maybe, bearing in mind the above, they should shut up.

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About Stephen Foster

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Stephen is a former editor of Marketing Week and London Evening Standard advertising columnist. He wrote City Republic for Brand Republic and is a partner in communications consultancy The Editorial Partnership.

2 comments

  1. Avatar

    Yes, advertising does rot your brain. But, not because of frequency. It’s because 99% of today’s advertising is shit and an insult to the audiences intelligence. It’s like being back in the days of Rosser Reeves flaming stomachs and hammers in your brain.

  2. Avatar

    We’re a long way from the day when one could just about claim “The ads are often better than the programmes.”

    Nowadays the most valuable audiences are the ones who pay to watch TV without ads, who subscribe to read digital news without ads, and block ads everywhere else.

    Brands are making real the age-old prediction that “The future of advertising is PR.” It’s all influencers, product placement, sponsorship, fake reviews, and stunts.

    So consumers don’t value advertising. Brands prefer PR. Agencies are rapidly becoming the only parties who actually value advertising.

    That might become a bit a problem, no?

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