Human rights and the environment are negatively impacted by advertising and consumerism in multiple direct and indirect ways. Furthermore, environmental impacts are closely linked to human rights impacts, and these are further explored below.
The direct and indirect impacts of advertising on human rights and the environment:
Multiple articles in human rights treaties provide protection to children and adults against the harms from advertising. These can be leveraged to advocate against unethical advertising and consumerism.
|Right and relevant international human rights treaties||Examples of how advertising, advertising’s promotion of unhealthy products, and consumerism deny this right|
|Freedom of information and expression|
Freedom of expression
African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (ACRWC) Article 7; UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) Article 12 and 13; International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) Article 19
Freedom of information
CRC Article 13 and Article 17 (access to information and material from a diversity of national and international sources; protection of the child from information and material injurious to his or her well-being); ICCPR Article 19
|– Misleading advertising undermines freedom of information.|
– Dominance of specific narratives and world views promoted through commercial advertising and marketing in public spaces, the family and private spheres.
– Younger children lack the critical awareness to evaluate advertising messages, and accept them as truthful, accurate and unbiased, which can distort their view of the world
|Freedom of thought, conscience and religion|
ACRWC Article 9; CRC Article 14; ICCPR Articles 18 and 19
|– Increased deployment of techniques that may influence people at a subconscious level, which raises particular concerns in terms of the rights to freedom of thought, opinion and, more widely, cultural freedom.|
– Techniques, such as extreme repetition of the same commercial message on multiple media, also raise concerns regarding the right to freedom of thought and opinion.
|Freedom from discrimination|
ACRWC Article 3; CRC Article 2; Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) – multiple articles embody this; ICCPR Article 26; International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) Article 3
|– Billboards advertising unhealthy food are concentrated in poorer areas and areas with a higher proportion of overweight children, and the higher the percentage of outdoor advertisements promoting high fat, salt or sugar (HFSS) foods, the greater the likelihood of obesity in the area. Children in the most deprived areas of the UK are approximately twice as likely to be obese. |
– Air pollution contributes to widening health inequalities as levels of emissions are higher on roads with the heaviest traffic which are used more by disadvantaged people as places where they live, work and shop.
– People who are socially, economically, culturally, politically, institutionally or otherwise marginalised are especially vulnerable to climate change.
|Elimination of prejudices and practices based on stereotyped roles for men and women|
CEDAW Articles 5 and 10
|Reinforcing of negative gender stereotypes by advertising.|
|Best Interests of the Child|
ACRWC Article 4; CRC Article 3
|Under this right, States Parties undertake to ensure the child such protection and care as is necessary for their well-being. There are multiple instances where the impact of advertising and consumerism mean this is clearly not the case, such as with marketing of HFSS.|
|Right to life, survival and development|
The right to health
ACRWC Article 14; CEDAW Article 12; CRC Article 24, ICESCR Article 12
The right to life
ACRWC Article 5; CRC Article 6, ICCPR Article 6
|– Marketing to children that is not carefully deliberated can normalise violence, sexualised behaviour or unrealistic body-image ideals which are a causal risk factor for the onset of eating disorders.|
– Health effects of HFSS foods: Childhood obesity is associated with a higher chance of premature death and disability in adulthood.
– Deaths from alcohol consumption (3 million per annum globally).
– Effects of air pollution from industrial processes and vehicles including as cause of death.
– Climate change is known to trigger or exacerbate armed conflict.
|Right to engage in play and recreational activities appropriate to the age of the child|
ACRWC Article 12; CRC Article 31
|– Parents are pressured to purchase a growing number of products which may be harmful to their children’s development.|
– The commercialisation of toys and games to children, including through children’s television programmes and directly related advertisements, are of concern, especially those promoting violence, girls or boys in a sexual way and which reinforce gender and disability stereotypes.
|Right to be free from violence and abuse, including sexual abuse and exploitation|
ACRWC Article 16 and 27; CEDAW Article 6; CRC Article 19 and 34
|– Link between alcohol consumption and intimate partner violence. |
– The UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women explicitly links gender stereotypes of women in advertising and gender-based violence (GBV).
– Sexualised images of children in advertising fosters an enabling environment for child sexual exploitation.
– Prevailing standards and peer pressure have led adolescents to share sexualised images of themselves, making them vulnerable to abuse and potentially redefining some of the social limits around the unacceptability of child sexual abuse imagery.
– Toxic masculinities can lead to unequitable, risky and abusive behaviour.
|Protection from slavery and economic exploitation including child labour|
ACRWC Articles 15 and 29; CEDAW Article 6; CRC Articles 32 and 35; ICCPR ICCPR Article 8; ICESCR Article 7; ILO Conventions
|– Our desire for fast fashion – which exploits cheap labour and vulnerable workers – is fuelled by advertising, social media and a supply of cheap garments.|
– 51 countries use child labour in at least one part of their garment or jewellery supply chains.
– There are 1.5 million children in hazardous child labour in cocoa production, an increase despite 20 years of promised corporate reforms.
|Child’s protection from drug abuse|
ACRWC Article 28; CRC Article 33
|– Materialism and teen peer pressure from group standards are both linked to increased cigarette and alcohol consumption.|
– Youth exposure to alcohol advertising is associated with the initiation of alcohol consumption by youth, the amount of alcohol consumed per drinking occasion, and/or adverse health consequences.
|Right to privacy|
ICCPR Article 17
|Targeted online advertising; normalising privacy breaches through pervasive tracking and data-mining.|
Relates to multiple rights including e.g., freedom of information and expression, freedom of thought, conscience and religion. Plus:
Right to participate freely in cultural life and the arts – ACRWC Article 12; CEDAW Article 13; CRC Article 31; ICESCR Article 15
CRC Article 30 and ICCPR Article 27 on the right to culture for ethnic, religious or linguistic minorities or persons of indigenous origin.
|– While most human rights are affected by climate change, cultural rights are particularly drastically affected, in that they risk being simply wiped out in many cases. This reality has not been adequately acknowledged in current climate change initiatives.|
– Global advertising campaigns promoting one single advertising message for all countries have a detrimental impact on cultural diversity, including linguistic diversity.
– The growing commercialisation and privatisation of public spaces pose significant challenges to the realisation of the right to participate in cultural life and to the protection of public spaces reflecting cultural diversity.
– Advertising can weaken children’s participation in the traditional cultural and artistic life of their community.
|Right to a sustainable environment|
Relates to multiple rights including the right to health.
Plus: CRC Article 29: the education of the child shall be directed to … the development of respect for the natural environment.
|– Advertising contributes to the social modelling of extrinsic values, and eroding motivation to help address environmental and social problems.|
– Advertising drives increased consumption, and therefore increases a society’s aggregate environmental footprint.
– Advertising ultimately impacts the severity of climate change.
In such a context, the advertising and marketing industries have a responsibility to market ethical choices, or to withdraw from marketing unethical goods, i.e., those which have potentially devastating implications for human health as well as the environment and other rights. Meanwhile governments have a responsibility to uphold their commitments to international human rights law.
These human rights treaties and commitments can be utalised by activists and policymakers to hold government and corporations to account, and campaign against advertising and consumerism.
This table is reproduced from our report At What Cost? Read the full report and find out more.