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The commodification of life itself: how advertising promotes endless growth, and how it could be otherwise

On June 5th 2024, UN Secretary General António Guterres called for the banning of fossil fuel advertising in order to combat climate change. This is, without qualification, a good idea. Fossil fuel adverts should be banned. But if we’re serious about tackling climate change, we shouldn’t stop there. 

Adverts act in lots of different ways, and they harm the climate in lots of different ways. We can analyse individual adverts and segments of advertising to see how they disrupt the climate. We know that outdoor advertising infrastructure itself uses lots of energy, contributing to carbon emissions, and work by Badvertising has shown that advertising SUVs and flights increases their consumption. But, as I do in a recent paper, we can also look at adverts at a more macro-scale: how the scale and size of advertising shapes our collective consciousness promoting ideas that drive capitalist destruction of the climate. To understand this we first need to talk about Growth.

Growth with a Capital G

Growth means many things. Plants grow flowers and leaves. Over our lives we grow our spiritual and intellectual capacities. Our families might grow as children are born and partners enter our lives. But none of these are the growth capitalism cares about. Capitalist economies care about growth in market value. Capitalism chases money for money’s sake. The accumulation of monetary wealth is an end in and of itself, pursued even if it deprives us of other forms of growth.

Capitalist Growth – Growth with a capital G – is one of the major drivers of climate change. The graph below  shows the big picture history of the world economy since 1960. Over the last 80 years, the global economy has become much more efficient with respect to carbon. For every dollar of economic output produced in the modern economy we emit only a third of the carbon emissions that would have been emitted to produce the same dollar in 1960. And yet, total annual carbon emissions were 8 times higher in 2022 than they were in 1960 (2022 is the most recent year for which we have carbon emission data). This is because although every individual piece of production is now more efficient, we produce much, much more.  

A graph showing GDP growth over time alongside CO2 emissions intensity.
Graph: Authors own. Data from: https://www.globalcarbonproject.org/carbonbudget/ and https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/NY.GDP.MKTP.KD 

All production requires energy and materials. From obvious things like your phone to less obvious things like the internet. Because of its basis in materials and energy, growth of the economy has outstripped the benefits of efficiency gains. 

Once we see the effects of Growth, we can begin to question the desirability, even feasibility of Growth. This is the central idea of the Degrowth and Post-Growth movement. Academics and activists argue that at best the endless chasing of monetary value undermines efforts at decarbonising our economies. Worse, it simultaneously pushes money and resources into the production of products that make us unhappy and working practices that damage our mental and physical wellbeing. But the challenge of Growth is how we escape it. Capitalism is a powerful cultural force and it uses a variety of institutions to create the conditions it needs for growth to take place. Advertising is one such institution.

Advertising as capitalism’s growth engine

A central role of advertising in capitalist economies is to develop ideas and beliefs that support capitalist growth. To this end adverts often present us with pseudo-realities in which actions which primarily act to support the accumulation of monetary value appear to promote fulfilment and self-realisation. To put it simply, adverts act to foster the belief that buying more stuff will help us feel fulfilled. 

I photographed the digital billboard below as I was commuting through Salford train station in 2019. The advert acts to bridge reality and fantasy. It presents a real situation: the discomfort of an overcrowded train, making us feel like cattle. It also presents a real commodity: a car you can go out and buy. But it distorts these realities. The car is not quite real. It is missing the frustrations that come with car ownership – the maintenance, the insurance, the traffic jams. It ignores the environmental and social costs of cars. Rather the advert presents an idealised imaginary of car ownership could be. A future in which you realise autonomy, freedom, and become human by buying a Vauxhall Corsa. 

An advert for a Vauxhall Corsa reads "cattle-class, cattle-class, first class"

This is obviously a false reality. And for any specific advert we can understand this. When we break it down it is obvious a Vauxhall Corsa isn’t actually going to help me achieve self-actualisation when I’m sat in traffic on the M1 at 7am on Monday morning. But each individual advert promotes the core idea that buying things is the route to happiness. This is the core myth of consumer capitalism – we buy not just the things we need but the things we think and hope will make us more human. And with every advert, this myth seeps into our consciousness making it harder and harder to escape.

In this way advertising represents the commodification of life itself. Because capitalism wants endless growth, it is constantly seeking out new ways for us to consume. Adverts support the expansion of markets into new areas of life. Presenting us with new ways to buy our happiness, while at the same time supporting increased levels of production that make it harder to reduce our energy and material use in ways that support rapid decarbonisation.

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Reclaim Adverts, Escape Growth. 

Adverts do not have to be capitalist. Adverts have been interpreted as a form of art, albeit, one that has been manipulated and pointed towards the end goals of Capitalism. Through this lens the sociologist Michael Schudson likens advertising to the Socialist Realism of Stalinist Russia, where art was made to serve the goals of the state. But suppose we could reclaim adverts and point their art towards something more than consumption.

There are clear examples of this in practice. Cities are taking steps to restrict advertising of unhealthy or carbon intensive products. In 2007 Sao Paulo implemented a ban on billboards with Lei Cidade Limpa (Clean City Law). Adverts have crept back in, but the law initially saw the removal of 15,000 billboards . And such space could be used for other things. The Burg Arts project stands out as an example of taking advertising space and using it to support community interests. Similarly, inspired by a touring art installation hosted in the city’s art gallery Leeds recently commissioned billboard designs from 4 artists and hosted them in the city during April and May. But could we go beyond this and approach it systematically?

The first step in systematically reclaiming advertising media would be to identify alternative values to promote. This would have to be a democratic exercise, but could include things such as conservation of the natural environment, or promotion of community or non-profit groups. Imagine a future where the next billboard you see isn’t trying to sell you something, but is instead promoting a local youth group or tree-planting initiative. 

Even this may seem a small step. But taken at scale – enacted by cities or national governments –  this would be both a reduction in the pressures to consume and produce more, whilst also promoting activities that foster happier lives. Striking at the heart of the myths that support Growth and drive climate destruction.

This guest blog is part of the Bad Publicity seriesin which academics in fields from public health to surveillance, degrowth and behaviour change explore the ways in which advertising intersects with pressing contemporary social and political issues.

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