Advertising has a long, romanticized history, but at its core, it serves only to take away agency and freedom, to generate profit at great social cost, and to artificially inflate consumption. From Jon Hamm’s troubled charm in Madmen to the fact that racial epithets like “Aunt Jemima” are household names, we’ve turned the business of swindling fellow citizens and promoting an unsustainable culture of consumerism into an admirable career path.
We need to ban it.
At its core, advertising’s main goal is to manipulate individuals into specific actions — whether those are buying Bounty paper towels, drinking a Coke, or voting for Donald Trump — and that manipulation is a degradation of our freedom. After the 2016 federal election, there was uproar — at least from the left — about “foreign powers” use of social media advertising and general disgust at the idea that Cambridge Analytica’s micro-targeting algorithms enabled them to “game the election.” But the reality is that successful politicians in the modern day all do it, because targeted advertising is the best way to manipulate people into making the decisions you want them to make, and the same exact manipulation is used to control the everyday actions we take. Individual freedom is incredibly important to Americans, but the very freedom that is the foundation of our democracy has been taken away by the monetization of data and marketing; to get it back, we need to stop allowing ourselves to be constantly inundated by manipulative messaging.
Advertising has been a key player in some of the worst public health crises of our century, but every time it happens, we take the reductionist point of view and blame the so-called “bad actor” in the immediate situation. Philip Morris used advertising to get kids smoking. Exxon used advertising to cast doubt on climate science. Johnson & Johnson used advertising to promote opioid use. And now Juul is using advertising to lure an entire generation into a new kind of tobacco use that is quite literally causing people to drop dead. The length of that list alone makes the point clear: year after year, we see more cases of advertising threatening society, generating public health crises, and being used to threaten the very existence of our civilization in the interest of short term profit, and year after year, we fail to recognize the common thread between these incidents. Yes, we need to hold these corporations responsible for their actions, but if we ever want it to stop, we need to take away the tool that’s used to create these crises (and the incentives that drive corporations to cause them).
Marketing also fuels and promotes our culture of unnecessary consumption — the engine that drives our economic goal of indefinite GDP growth, and one of the engines driving our seemingly uncontrollable skid towards a series of fundamental planetary limitations, leading to things like the climate crisis. There are a lot of different elements involved in solving the climate crisis, but ultimately, overconsumption and waste are critical issues that have to be addressed. From the Pacific garbage patch to the intentional burning of the Amazon — it comes down to demand and consumption. Advertising’s defining purpose is to increase demand, and it’s something we — the human species — can no longer afford. We need to reconstruct our relationship with consumption from the ground up, and to do that, we need to prevent ourselves from being bombarded with messaging that encourages consumerism and waste.
OK, sure. But what would be lost if we banned advertising? One could argue that advertising — in some form, at least — is necessary to inform the public about available products and services. But if the internet can do just one of its many promised goods, let it be eliminating that need — information about everything is available online. We could create an independent central registry of goods and services with objective information and require companies to submit their products to the registry. The information provided to the public via advertising in the status quo is fundamentally manipulative because the goal driving it is to convince you to buy the product — whether or not it’s actually the best fit. The limited impartial content that’s actually provided is generally required by law anyway, so what we lose from an “information” perspective is actually just the narrative warfare. Banning advertising is a key step to regaining control of the information ecosystem and restoring public trust.
Then there’s the “jobs” argument. The marketing industry is huge with over $200 billion spent on ad buys last year. But times change, cultural values change, and technology — like the Internet — can make professions obsolete. So let’s provide support for the marketing industry — government training opportunities, social services, whatever they need — and help these professionals transition to jobs that generate real value for society instead of spuriously increasing GDP by spinning the hamster wheel of production and waste. There are burgeoning industries in renewable energy, regenerative agriculture, and ecological restoration. The shift to a sustainable society will involve much bigger changes to our culture and economy than just shutting down coal mines and government can help make these transitions through investment and retraining programs. Ultimately, the existence of a job is not sufficient justification for its continued existence; let’s take a step back and reassess what actually brings value to society and give everyone the tools they need to be a part of that.
Advertising’s fundamental goal is to control us and its most basic impacts are to cause overconsumption and waste. Let’s take back our freedom and take one more step towards a sustainable civilization by banning it.