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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.
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.
These environmental impacts have been side-lined as ‘externalities’ by mainstream economic thinking, with the promise that technological innovation will be able to fix any problems as they occur. And whilst new technologies may play their part, the ability of the Earth’s ecological systems to absorb the toxic impacts of our economy is waning.
The World Economic Forum predicts that by 2050, there will be more plastic in our oceans than fish. 1World Economic Forum, The New Plastics Economy, January 2016 Globally, populations of birds, mammals, amphibians, fish and reptiles have declined in number by 60% on average between 1970 and 2014. 2WWF and Institute of Zoology, Living Planet Report 2018. 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.” 3Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Summary for Policymakers of IPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C, October 2018.
The advertising messages we see on billboards, our smartphones and TVs have precious little to say on these profound and life-threatening impacts. The cumulative message from advertisements is simply “carry on consuming”.
Objections to outdoor advertising, however, do not equate to a rejection of the things we need to raise our living standards and to create happier, healthier lives. We should want more from life, not less. The question is: more of what? Whilst richer households are encouraged to purchase beyond their needs and usually have higher carbon footprints, 4Stephanie Moser and Silke Kleinhückelkotten, Good Intents, but Low Impacts, Environment and Behaviour, June 2017. poorer households are struggling to make ends meet. 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.
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”.
As cities struggle to cope with increasingly congested roads, the car industry are among the top users of billboard advertising. 11Outsmart, 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. 12Outsmart, 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.”13MaxxMedia
Most new planning applications for advertising billboards are for digital screens. These are highly profitable for advertising companies as they typically show around 6 advertisements a minute and the changing image draws the eye of motorists. The screens are packed with thousands of LEDs also require high energy use. One study found that a digital billboard uses 30 times as much energy as a typical American household.14Gregory Young, Illuminating the Issues, 2010.
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.
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.”
SPACE FOR CHANGE
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 Assadourian15Worldwatch Institute
 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.