There is something present in all our lives that adds 30% to our carbon footprints every single year. Can you guess what it is?
The answer, as you probably guessed, is advertising. Research from Purpose Disruptors looks at how much extra stuff is produced and consumed each year and adds up all the carbon emissions from that stuff to calculate the impact of advertising, and the results are terrifying.
In 2022, advertising in the UK was responsible for 208 million tonnes of CO2, the equivalent of an extra 30% on the UK total without advertising.
As the world comes to terms with the rising crises of plastics pollution, global climate change and ecological collapse, a new common sense is emerging that consumerism is laying waste to our planet. Corporate advertising, which aims to manufacture the needs, wants and desires among us for more and more purchases is a key part of this system – and needs to be challenged.
Consuming ourselves to death
The use of sophisticated advertising techniques to turbo-charge consumer spending is now a regular feature of our economy. In doing so, the idea that consumption leads to fulfilment has become entrenched. As consumption levels rise, more of the Earth’s resources have been extracted and destroyed to provide increasing quantities of products. At the end of their use, these products are then discarded, buried or burnt – polluting our land, waterways and atmosphere. Recycling levels have been unable to keep pace with production.
The World Economic Forum predicts that by 2050, there will be more plastic in our oceans than fish. Globally, populations of birds, mammals, amphibians, fish and reptiles have declined in number by 60% on average between 1970 and 2014. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned in October 2018 that we have just 12 years to limit global warming to an average of 1.5C; calling for “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society.”
But still every year 2 million tonnes of electronic waste goes to landfill, and one quarter of items in the average Briton’s wardrobe have never been worn. That’s £200 a year wasted on rags we don’t even wear, and we’re still told to buy more and more and more.
The advertising industry wants to offer us more consumer choice; but this choice is meaningless in the face of social inequality and climate breakdown. We can’t consume our way out of these problems.
The electricity costs of out-of-home advertising
Increasingly, paper billboards are being replaced with digital screens. At the same time, ad companies are installing thousands of smaller (“six-sheet”) digital screens in towns and cities across the country.
Each six-sheet consumers the equivalent electricity of three average UK homes, or 11,500 kWh in a year.
A larger digital billboard can use as much electricity as 11 UK homes.
This is not a small issue. There are 14,560 digital screen of all sizes in the UK. Ad company Clear Channel owns 3600 six-sheets in the UK, and 450 digital billboards. Rival company JCDecaux owns 1400 six-sheets and 350 billboards. And the number is always growing, by around 3% per year.
In a climate crisis and cost of living crisis, can we really afford to be wasting so much energy on advertising?
BILLBOARDS IN BRISTOL
Most outdoor advertising, and particularly large format billboards, are designed to be seen by passing motor traffic. The value of a billboard is partly based on the level of traffic that will see its messages. As our map of billboard locations shows, the Easton and Lawrence Hill wards of Bristol have a particularly high density of billboards as this is where major road networks are located. These wards also suffer from the highest levels of air pollution in the city. Residents living in lower income areas of the city have to put up with higher levels of motor traffic, higher levels of air pollution and higher levels of billboard advertising. As one Easton resident commented, “You don’t see them in Clifton”.
In addition to the impacts of consumer messaging, many residents in Bristol have expressed concerns that fundamentally billboards and their adverts reduce the aesthetic character of our communities. Harry McPhilimy from the St Werburghs Neighbourhood Association explained, “We’re campaigning to rid the area of these giant advertising hoardings because they are out of scale, attract fly-tipping, fly-posting and tagging to create a negative unfriendly environment. We want to build an attractive, human scale environment.”
As cities struggle to cope with increasingly congested roads, the car industry are among the top users of billboard advertising. 1Outsmart, Top 10 Out Of Home Categories, 2012 – 2017. Brands such as Ford, BMW, Mercedes, Toyota, Nissan, Audi, Fiat and Citroen spend around £25 million on out-of-home ads in the UK annually. 2Outsmart, Out of Home Works for Motor Brands. This has the effect of re-enforcing the dominance of car culture at a time when local authorities are urgently needing to promote sustainable transport as a remedy for air pollution, ill health and social isolation. Billboard companies even use the high congestion levels in their sales pitch to attract more revenue. One outdoor advertising sales brochure said: “Bristol is one of the most congested cities in the country with commuters spending on average a quarter of their journey at a complete standstill.”3MaxxMedia
Our environment is made of many different factors: air, soil, noise, light. In 2007, the Mayor of Sao Paulo in Brazil introduced a ban on all outdoor advertising classing it as ‘visual pollution’. The French City of Grenoble also banned outdoor advertising in 2015 – replacing the adverts with trees and community noticeboards.
SPACE FOR CHANGE
The winds of change are blowing. More and more people around the world are waking up to the harm caused by advertising, and outdoor advertising.
In October 2022, the House of Lords published the In Our Hands report on the role of behaviour change in achieving net zero. The role of advertising is explicitly mentioned in the report as a “powerful influence on consumer behaviour on a large scale” and the authors call for “measures to regulate advertising of high-carbon and environmentally-damaging products.”
Similarly, the United Nations Environment Programme, recommends that national governments implements measures to regulate advertising of carbon intensive transportation modes like flying, and selected high-carbon foods such as meat, dairy products and certain types of fish. Advertising, the UNEP report notes, fuels material consumption to meet needs that “might be better met through alternative and less climate-damaging means.”
Huge industries of creative talent are currently being harnessed to produce marketing messages for new goods and services. As environmental concerns mount, it is prudent to ask, where are the spaces for alternative messages? Where can we find the air time to create a new story for our cities, stories that champion positive social and environmental ideas rather than more purchases? If advertising spaces are only sold to companies with the most money, how can we curtail the power of consumer messages over our lives, our wellbeing and the planet?
it’s not simply greenhouse gases that cause climate change, it’s our consumer lifestyle that causes the greenhouse gases that cause climate change. Until we end consumerism and the rampant advertising that drives it, we will not solve the climate crisis.Erik Assadourian4Worldwatch Institute
What can you do?
There are lots of ways that you can help create ad-free cities where you live.
You can join your local Adblock group. Adblock groups are our network of volunteers who work in their local area to stop new billboards and lobby councils for change.
Wherever you live you can object to planning applications for new billboards. This is hugely important to hold the line against new screens. One local Adblock group in Bristol has stopped over 50 new billboards being installed.
Local councils have powers to control what kind of adverts are displayed on advertising sites they own, such as bus stop posters. If you think it’s crazy to see adverts for cars on bus stops, then take action! Contact your councillor today and ask for an ethical advertising policy where you are.
 World Economic Forum, The New Plastics Economy, January 2016.
 WWF and Institute of Zoology, Living Planet Report 2018.
 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Summary for Policymakers of IPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C, October 2018.
 Stephanie Moser and Silke Kleinhückelkotten, Good Intents, but Low Impacts, Environment and Behaviour, June 2017.
 House of Commons Environment Audit Committee, October 2018.
 YouGov Survey, January 2008.
 WRAP, Quantification of food surplus, 2016.
 Compass, The Advertising Effect, 2009.
 UK Health and Safety Executive.
 Oxfam, Extreme Carbon Inequality, 2015.
 Outsmart, Top 10 Out Of Home Categories, 2012 – 2017.
 Outsmart, Out of Home Works for Motor Brands.
 Maxx Media. (webpage now removed)
 Gregory Young, Illuminating the Issues, 2010.
 Worldwatch Institute.