Advertising Adapts and Grows, Spreading the Consumer Culture Plague

Advertisers are adapting to changing media environments, spreading ads around the world at a fast rate.
 
 
Shakuntala Makhijani
 Shakuntala Makhijani is a Climate and Energy Research Associate at the Worldwatch Institute.
 
Highlights
  • As consumers have found ways to avoid and resist traditional forms of advertising, advertisers have turned to more subtle techniques such as product placement and interactive online advertising.
  • In 2012, advertising expenditures grew 3.3 percent worldwide, continuing the gradual rebound in global ad spending since the 2008–2009 financial crisis.
  • False advertising and deceptive environmental claims have become so rampant that the U.S. Federal Trade Commission established updated Green Guides in 2012.
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BY SHAKUNTALA MAKHIJANI | MARCH 26, 2013 

Marketers adapt very well to changing environments, feeding off of consumers’ changing attitudes and behaviors. As consumers have found ways to avoid and resist traditional forms of advertising (digital TV recorders and AdBlock Plus for example), advertisers have turned to more subtle techniques such as promotional material on blogs, product placement, and interactive advertising on social media such as Facebook and Twitter.

Advertising in schools is one particularly pernicious example of ad creep in public spheres, in some cases infiltrating nearly all aspects of student life. Examples of this include free book covers featuring Kellogg’s Pop Tarts and Fox TV characters, nutrition curriculum provided by the Hershey Corporation, business course curriculum from McDonald’s that gives students instructions for applying for a job at the fast-food chain, and a video on environmental issues produced by Shell Oil.

Advertising like this Gap Kids ad for children's jeans shape girls' body image from a young age. (pinkstinks.wordpress.com)

And the overall bombardment of advertising on the world has gone up significantly in the past year. In 2012, advertising expenditures grew 3.3 percent worldwide, continuing the gradual rebound in global ad spending since the 2008–2009 financial crisis. While the United States remains the world’s largest ad market by far, advertising spending is growing fastest in the Asia/Pacific region with 7.9 percent growth last year (excluding Japan).

While some analysts hail the recovery of ad spending as a sign of economic recovery, the current trajectory has serious negative implications. The impacts of advertising and consumerism on all aspects of society and culture—from food choices to young girls’ self-image—are well documented. Advertising targeted at children is particularly penetrating and influential, defining their identity as consumers from an early age and interfering with normal childhood development. Evidence has shown that children are experiencing increased physical, emotional, and social harm as a result of consumerism through advertising.

Advertisers have also sought to capitalize on growing public concern over environmental threats through “green” marketing. However, false advertising and deceptive environmental claims have become so rampant that the U.S. Federal Trade Commission established updated Green Guides in 2012 that will allow it to take enforcement action against deceptive environmental marketing.  The guidelines discourage the use of general and unsubstantiated terms such as “eco-friendly” and include strong guidelines for use of terms such as “biodegradable” and “recyclable.”

The FTC issued Green Guides to curb false “green” advertising. (brandchannel.com)

While regulatory controls on false advertising such as the Green Guides are a positive development, true sustainability will ultimately require less material consumption and therefore stronger overall limits on advertising to stem its global growth and increasing presence in everyday life.

Read the full report at Vital Signs Online.

Shakuntala Makhijani is a Research Associate at the Worldwatch Institute.