On Advertising

Wednesday January 14, 2009


Occasionally I get emails of effusive praise for this blog from people who, curiously enough, seem to have only the scantiest acquaintance with it. And when there is this curious combination of effusive praise and minimal acquaintance, I know that I only have to read on a sentence or two to see that the email writer has some product that they want me to advertise here, in return for a small consideration. When I receive these emails, I generally reply by saying as delicately as I can that although their product sounds fascinating, in general I do not carry adverts on the site. The reasons for this are several. Firstly, because I fondly imagine that people come to this site either a) by accident or b) because they have a passing interest in reading what I have written, and not c) because they have an overwhelming desire to buy more stuff. Secondly, because advertisements are pretty unaesthetic, when it comes down to it. Thirdly, because I don’t want to recommend things that I haven’t checked out myself. And fourthly, because not carrying advertising allows me to maintain a kind of freedom that I suspect I would not otherwise have.

However, if last night’s programme on BBC Radio4 is anything to go by, I’m clearly missing out, because advertising is apparently the most fun that you can have with your clothes still on (although I’m not sure who advertising is supposed to be this much fun for – the advertisers or the advertisees). It was, I confess, a rather alarming broadcast. It began with advertising executive and presenter Robert Wright boldly claiming that the advertising industry increases the sum total of happiness in the world. The evidence mounted for this was both slight and spurious. Wright supported his claim by saying that brain science shows (one should always beware of claims that begin with words such as “Scientists have found…”) that when one buys a luxury product, it “releases pleasure energy” (I’m not entirely sure what this is, but I’ll let it pass) inside the brain.

Call me obstinate, but on this basis of this argument, I am unpersuaded. For whilst it is no doubt true that there is a kind of pleasure in acquisition of things, it is also the case that the stimulation of the brain’s pleasure centres does not correlate with an increase in happiness. Happiness, whatever it actually means – as the ancient philosophers knew – is clearly not the same thing as pleasure. Even those pleasure-loving Epicureans knew that there are pleasures and pleasures and that some pleasures are conducive to happiness, whilst others are positively harmful.

In blurring the distinction between happiness and pleasure, Wright effectively sidestepped the serious moral issues raised by the advertising industry. For, contrary to the upbeat nature of the radio programme, there is quite a lot of credible research that suggests that the free rein given to advertisers is extremely harmful, and that indicates that what unchecked advertising spreads is not happiness, but, on the contrary, dissatisfaction and unhappiness. This tendency to sidestep wider moral questions was particularly worrying given that much of the programme was given over to an exploration of the increasing interest that the advertising industry is taking in brain science.

One of the interviewees was Gemma Calvert, professor of neuro-imaging at Warwick University and founder of neuro-marketing company Neurosense. Professor Calvert had a breezily positive view of how it might be to all of our benefit if advertisers paid closer attention to the developing understanding of brain function that is taking place in the sciences. Her argument was, more or less, this: that with a closer understanding of the way the brain works, the advertising industry can much more effectively target their campaigns, and can therefore design products that people want, thereby reducing advertising “clutter”. “We are trying to find out what you do want,” Professor Calvert said, “in order to sell you things that you are going to buy and that are going to produce greater experiences.”

The problem here is with that seemingly innocuous word “want”. Most of the time, advertising is not a matter of responding to pre-existing wants – let alone needs – but is instead a matter of creating wants where formerly they do not exist. If I invent a new brand of chocolate, then for anybody to want it, I have tell people that exists and to persuade them that they might want it: the advertising is logically prior to the wanting.

There is, no doubt, a place for advertising, but it is hard not to be concerned about the increasing reach of the advertisers in selling us things that hitherto we didn’t know we needed; and in the face of mounting evidence that much advertising is destructive of human happiness, there is a good case for increased regulation. But given that the prevailing economic wisdom, such as it is, insists – contrary to most of the evidence – that happiness and social justice can only be secured if we continue to spend our money and to acquire things that we do not need, that does not seem likely to happen any time soon.

# · Sandals

Just to play devil’s advocate, if I may: Where can we find examples of the “mounting evidence that advertising is destructive of human happiness?” Not that I’m contesting the point — only curious. Thank you for the interesting post!

# · Will

A good question! This is not a full answer, but should give you enough to be going on with. For the impact of advertising in general, there’s a fair amount of research out there. Tim Kasser’s book “The High Price of Materialism” is persuasive, and the bibliography points to some useful sources. Similarly (and more recently) Richard Layard cites some of the work that has been done in his book “Happiness”.

When it comes to advertising specific products, there are many other more focused studies. For example, studies of the relationship between:

  • advertising and body image
  • ‘junk’ food advertising and public health
  • car advertising and road safety.
  • advertising of addictive substances such as alcohol and tobacco, and public health

There is enough research, that is to say, to suggest at the very least that there is good reason for a much more rigorous and serious look at the effects of advertising in our lives.

All the best,


# · zensquared

It seems that the fundamental purpose of advertising is to CREATE DESIRE. If we know the most basic of Buddhist teachings, then we know that desire (craving) is the root of our suffering.

So, um … advertising is a cause of suffering?

# · Ted Bagley

To clarify the last comment: The fundamental purpose of advertising is to make one believe that desire can be fulfilled by something. Since we can’t not desire, suffering is the belief that it is a problem to be filled or ended when there is no filling or ending of it.
If I’m not mistaken, advertisements used to be called Public Service Announcements. Kinda funny.

# · arctanck

Advertising may only be just informational, despite its intention. Isn’t it through cultivation of our mind that we can be free of sufferings? Asking for regulation other than self is it going to be futile when everyday we are seeing and hearing so many things that can provoke “want”. No amount of regulation is enough I’m afraid.

Comments are turned off for this article.

  • Today's Most Popular

  • Related Articles

  • Featured Articles