Whether it’s the myth of a perfect body, a perfect family Christmas or a perfect holiday, advertisers are on hand with the promise of a perfect lifestyle. The message: if we would just buy their product, then we too could reach that perfection.

But it’s a deliberately unattainable vision. The common reality is that imperfections have been airbrushed away or photoshopped out.  No matter how much we buy and try to keep up, we’ll never get there. The false promises of advertising can lead to a sense of dissatisfaction when we do buy their products, trapping us in a cycle of purchases and disappointment. 


Cartoon shows a woman holding her child next to a bottle of bleach. Text reads "Advertising takes a mother's love for her child and uses it to sell bleach"
Artwork by Darren Cullen www.spellingmistakescostlives.com

It can be tempting to think we’re not influenced by advertising and can ignore its unwanted messages. But how much control do we really have?

Edward Bernays, the “father of public relations”, and a nephew of Sigmund Freud, applied his uncle’s ground-breaking work on understanding the human mind not to helping people overcome emotional difficulties but to selling them products through manipulation. He was the brains behind the campaign to get women smoking by branding it as a defiant, independent and fashionable act.

The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organised habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in a democratic society.

Edward Bernays, Propaganda, 1928

Bernays admired political propaganda and saw that these techniques of controlling and coercing the population could be used to sell consumer products too, although he rebranded ‘propaganda’ with the more acceptable label of “public relations”.

Cartoon in two parts. to the left is a panel showing "why adverts look less like this" above a drawing of a stapler surrounded by information about it such as how many staples it holds. In the right hand panel is the text "and more like this" above an image of the same stapler with two people sitting on it with smiling faces and arms raised, surrounded by words like "staplers are sexy" and "wow"
Above: Artwork by Cartoon Ralph

The feel good factor

In the post-war period, adverts were simpler: they would give us  information about a product. But that’s rarely how it works today. Advertisers now are not looking to inform us about a product as much as they are trying to shape our feelings about what it means to be successful, trendy, accepted, beautiful, happy and how we should enjoy ourselves.

Our human tendency to choose things which make us feel good is hijacked by advertisers and used to make us buy products, often without us realising it is happening. It might even lead us to choose a product which we know we don’t really want.

Contemporary marketing techniques that link products with positive stimuli can elicit a preference for, or choice of, that product by non-conscious, non-rational means, and may undermine consciously held attitudes.

Agnes Nairn & Cordelia Fine

Research from the University of Bath shows that we do not need to pay conscious attention to an advertisement in order to be influenced by it. The ‘Low Attention Processing Model’ argues that because we are very accustomed to seeing adverts on a daily basis our minds stop processing them consciously and leave them to the subconscious to deal with. Advertisers know this: some of the most creative people in the world are currently employed to create a slick repetition of brand images to create familiarity. With familiarity comes trust. Trust in a brand means we’re more likely to purchase them. All this can happen at a subconscious level. 

In the case of outdoor advertising like billboards, we rarely have a choice about whether we want to see these adverts or be influenced by them. Compared to radio or TV, street advertising is “the one medium you can’t switch off” as the industry likes to boast.

Stay Updated with Adfree Cities

A Cycle of unhappiness

Advertising often presents us with an unrealistic picture of happiness, often tied to notions of glamour, money, power and possessions. As we struggle to live up to this we can feel that we’ve failed no matter how much we spend. In The High Price of Materialism, Tim Kasser argues that the search for fulfilment through cultural values typically associated with advertising (money, possessions, image and social status) is undermining our wellbeing.  The proliferation of corporate advertising in our public spaces means we are constantly exposed to messages which promote and reinforce these materialistic values.

It often seems to me that a person who feels happy and sceure isn’t going to be a very good consumer, because that person isn’t going to be looking for products to shore up the self-image or feel better about oneself

Jean Kilbourne, The Illusionists (2015)

The beauty myth

Advertising is less about satisfying existing needs than about creating new desires.  Advertising convinces us that we are lacking in some way and then presents a purchase as the remedy. We even have name for it: ‘retail therapy’.

Impossible beauty ideals are used regularly in advertising which can result in anxieties about our body image and lower our self-esteem. 

The writer Naomi Wolf,  in The Beauty Myth, argues that advertisers have created a whole series of problems for women to feel anxious and self-hating about, from weight problems to wrinkles. The solution we are offered, of course, is a barrage of beauty products.

Women see Face and the Body all around them now… because advertisers need to sell products in a free-for-all of imagery bombardment intent on lowering women’s self-esteem.

Naomi Wolf, The Beauty Myth
A billboard shows a slim, attractive woman in a bikini with the words "are you beach body ready?"

As Elena Rossini’s 2015 documentary The Illusionists puts it, our bodies have become the ultimate consumer product. But the ‘perfect look’  depends on what marketers want to sell you – and it differs around the world. Advertisers persuade white women that they need tanning products, while promoting skin whitening creams in Asia and Africa.

An American Psychological Association report found that the sexualisation of women and girls in advertising and other media is harmful to girls’ self-image and is linked to eating disorders, low self-esteem and depression.

Increasingly, it is not only women who are targeted with these marketing tactics; similar pressures are being placed on men and children. 

Spend, spend, spend

How do we pay for all these things we’re told we need? Two options: work harder and longer, or borrow. UK society has been doing both. In July 2018, UK consumer debt from personal loans, credit cards and car finance stood at £200 billion, making British households the most indebted in major Western countries according to the Office of National Statistics.

With many families already struggling to meet basic needs from stagnant wages, high rents and benefit cuts, the added pressure of consumer marketing places extra stresses on us. These messages are ramped up at the biggest annual festival of consumption, Christmas. Families in particular feel increasingly pressured to create the ‘perfect’ Christmas promoted by advertisers and other mass media and this puts us under greater financial stress as we borrow, delay paying bills and make other sacrifices in pursuit of this impossible dream.

The recently established ‘Black Friday’ shopping bonanza in November has added another media moment to the retail calendar.  Frenzied scenes of shoppers fighting to access stores and highly primed marketing campaigns push us to make impulsive purchases of things we mostly don’t need – but still want.

A fairly substantial body of research agrees that those who feel bad about themselves and who are exposed to advertising are much more likely to rush to purchase all the toys, gadgets and electronics that we are urged to buy. They think it will make them feel better. But of course it doesn’t — it just creates a vicious circle of watching, wanting and poor well-being. It can also cause tension in families as kids ask for things they can’t have and parents feel endlessly guilty about buying stuff and about not buying stuff. No one really wins, apart from the retailers.

Professor Agnes Nairn, University of Bristol Should Children’s Ads at Christmas be put on a diet? (December 2017)

Our public spaces, our choice

The fight against advertising is not a fight against desiring. We should want more from life not less, and we should demand it. The question is: more of what?

Adverts are all around us. Outdoor advertising is a particular problem because we have no choice about whether we are exposed to it. 

But there is another way. Communities and cities around the world are standing up to outdoor advertising. The cities of Sao Paolo in Brazil and Grenoble in France have both banned billboards. Adblock Bristol has been campaigning for Bristol to become the first city in the UK to remove corporate outdoor advertising since 2017. And there is a growing movement across the UK, with other groups joining the fight for ad-free cities.

What you can do today

Adfree Cities has lots of actions you can take to reduce the presence of corporate advertising in public space.

  • Local authorities often own large advertising estates, especially bus stop adverts. Learn how to lobby your council to introduce an ethical advertising policy that limits ads for things like junk food, alcohol, gambling, pay-day loans and high carbon products.
  • Stopping new ads being installed can be slow but is also massively effective and sends a clear message to advertising companies that they are not welcome on our streets. Find out more about objecting to planning applications here.
  • Fighting ads is more fun together! Click here to find your nearest Adblock group. Can’t find one? Start your own and we’ll support you every step of the way.


[1] Edward Bernays, Propaganda, 1928
[2] Agnes Nairn & Cordelia Fine (2008), Who’s messing with my mind? International Journal of Advertising, 27:3, 447-470
[3] Robert Heath and Pam Hyder (2005), Measuring the hidden power of emotive advertising, Journal of Market Research, 47(5), 467-486
[4] Low Cost, big results, roadside advertising works.
[5] Tim Kasser, The High Price of Materialism (MIT Press 2002).
[6] Naomi Wolf, The Beauty Myth (Vintage 1991).
[7] American Psychological Association, Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls, Report of the APA Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls (2007).
[8] Calum Bennie, Taking The Pressure Off Christmas (December 2017).
[9] Professor Agnes Nairn, Should Children’s Ads at Christmas be put on a diet? (December 2017)