The job of advertisers is straightforward. They convince us to buy things we need, and more often, things we probably don’t need — the next iPhone, a buttery leather couch from West Elm, a shampoo that promises to make our hair shiny and full.
Advertisers don’t just remind us of things we intended to buy, however. Through psychological manipulation, persistence, and a deep knowledge of consumers, advertisers generate and shape demand, and by extension, markets.
In this role advertisers have amassed considerable power. They facilitate the expansion of capital and the commodification of new spheres of life.
Over the past century, public spaces and architecture, leisure, art, and sports, the means of communication and conversation — all have become the domain of advertisers. Advertising spending grows year on year. In 2019 it will reach nearly $200 billion in the United States alone. Everywhere we are prodded to buy.
Indeed, the power of advertisers grows ever stronger — they have already colonized the digital frontier. In the span of a couple decades the digital infrastructure of modern economic, social, and political life has been bent to the specifications of advertisers. Facebook, for example, has more than 2 billion active users who on average spend fifty minutes a day between Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp. The company made $55.8 billion in revenue in 2018; $55 billion of that came from advertising.
The relationship between the tech titans and advertisers is much deeper than an arms-length market exchange, of course. In many respects, Facebook and Google are following the path trampled by advertisers.
By the early twentieth century, advertising agencies had armies of people tasked with surveying and categorizing Americans. Ad men (and sometimes women) walked the city streets and country lanes discovering the inner desires and proclivities of the American consumer. With this information companies were able to classify people according to where they lived, their occupation, how much schooling they had completed, what types of things they bought, and most importantly, what they might buy in the future.
The tech titans continue this tradition today with unprecedented precision. Facebook and Google suck up every scrap of information possible about us — every message, click, photo, search, like, comment. They track our digital and analog movements, copy our contact lists, photograph us, buy data about us from third-party brokers. And they keep this data, all of it, forever, creating individual profiles of each user to sell to advertisers.
The capitalist drive for compound growth is bolstered by advertisers’ subjugation of the digital frontier. Our umbilical attachment to our smartphones and the platforms we’ve come to rely on as social utilities enable advertisers to reach us anywhere. Sure, we install ad blockers and scroll down. But there’s no escape — the message to buy has become omnipresent.
In wealthy countries consumption grows by leaps and bounds with dire ecological consequences.
Fashion is a clear illustration. Through social media, television, magazines, billboards on subways, at bus stops, on buildings, we’re implored to be more beautiful, hip, sexy, confident. We’re assured that we can be if we wear the brands advertised.
Trends change all the time, however. Instead of the traditional four cycles a year, retailers like Zara and H&M increasingly follow a fast-fashion model, generating mini-cycles of four to six weeks. In doing so they speed up the time from production to consumption, increasing the number of times customers, who are eager to stay on trend, step into their stores.
Today, people constantly update their wardrobes, stuffing their dressers and closets with cheap clothing designed to last scarcely longer than a mini-cycle. We allocate precious freshwater and arable land to produce endless piles of low-quality crop tops and ill-fitting jeggings that look faded and misshapen after one wash. To make space for new arrivals retailers sell the leftovers for a song; within a few months or a year the stale garments end up donated or in the trash, while fresh ones are produced and purchased.
Advertisers are key to this feverish cycle of accumulation. They make us feel ugly and inadequate in one breath while offering the balm of a new maxi dress (50 percent off!) in the next.
The externalities are grim. In addition to a global network of dangerous, low-paying jobs, the fashion industry generates mass quantities of toxic chemicals and dyes. Considering it takes about a thousand gallons of water to make one pair of blue jeans, it’s not surprising that global fashion is responsible for 20 percent of global wastewater. This doesn’t even account for all the synthetic microfibers from our athleisure wear that get washed into the ocean and ingested by marine creatures. Overall, the fashion industry is responsible for 10 percent of global carbon emissions (more than maritime shipping and international flights).
Advertising’s digital advance has equally dire costs. The symbiotic relationship between tech companies and advertisers has made ubiquitous surveillance the new normal.
The ecological costs are just as troubling. Our wherever/whenever purchasing power facilitates effortless, unthinking consumption. Embedded ads prompt us to tap a purchase on the train home, in bed, waiting to get our teeth cleaned — anywhere.
Moreover, the data we generate is not weightless, floating in a fluffy cloud somewhere. It is created using physical hardware, transmitted through physical structures, stored in physical spaces, many of which are powered by coal.
By the end of 2020, the Information and Communication Technologies Industry (data centers, desktops, laptops, displays, computer hardware, smartphones) will account for at least 14 percent of total global emissions. The largest contributors to the ICTI’s footprint are data centers, where tech companies store all the data that they market to advertisers.
Our smartphones, which follow forced-obsolescence design principles, are also extremely destructive in their own right. The rare metals needed for our pocket computers, which we replace on average every two years, require a colossal amount of energy and effort to extract. Experts say 85–95 percent of our smartphones’ lifecycle footprint comes from the production process itself. Old smartphones make up part of the roughly 50 million tons of toxic e-waste produced annually, much of which gets dumped in poor countries.
As a society we barely examine this cycle of compulsive consumption — a cycle driven by advertising. We rarely question its absurdity, its inefficiency and waste.
Granted, we periodically engage in brief, and sometimes collective, self-loathing at commercialism and how much we consume. We’re enthralled with Marie Kondo’s entreaty to “keep only those things that speak to the heart, and discard items that no longer spark joy.”
We’re also broadly suspicious of advertisers. We demand “truth in advertising” and in the United States have passed laws, enforced by the Federal Trade Commission, forcing advertising companies to create ads that are “truthful, not misleading, and, when appropriate, backed by scientific evidence.”
But we never question why we must have advertising at all. Indeed, it feels like a stupid question.
In our strategies and discussions about how to prevent our planet from becoming a wasteland, getting rid of advertising is never on the agenda. Life without advertising feels unimaginable.
Why? There are a number of explanations, but the power of advertisers to shape ideology is central. In the United States, to consume is to be a good American. We constantly receive the message that our identity is inseparable from our possessions — the ones we have and the ones we hope to acquire.
As Charles McGovern demonstrates in his history of advertising in America, advertisers equate the market with society: consumption is “portrayed as a political exercise in resonant accord with the rituals of American freedom.”
A second, interconnected, argument is that it is unclear whether capitalism would survive without advertising. Paul Baran and Paul Sweezy asserted in Monopoly Capital:
… advertising in all of its aspects cannot be meaningfully dealt with as some undesirable excrescence on the economic system which could be removed if “we” would only make up our minds to get rid of it.… Advertising constitutes as much an integral part of the system as the giant corporation itself.
Getting rid of advertising, they contended, would mean getting rid of capitalism.
It’s difficult to say whether this in fact true. Certainly former-president George W. Bush’s post-9/11 plea to his fellow Americans to go to the mall and buy that big-screen TV reinforced the notion that society itself rests on our endless consumption, and by extension the right of advertisers to penetrate all spheres of life.
However, the upshot of this argument, while it functions as a critique of capitalism, is to displace a serious interrogation of the centrality and pervasiveness of advertising. When we equate reining in or eliminating advertising with overthrowing capitalism itself the whole conversation shuts down. Critiquing advertising feels akin to complaining about the weather — we may not like it but there’s nothing we can do about it.
But advertisers are not an unstoppable force. They have insinuated themselves into society, manipulating people into endless consumption of things they often don’t need or even enjoy with dire ecological consequences. Advertisers thrive on perpetuating a system that is ravaging the planet.
Now is the time to be blunt, to question the common sense of capitalism — a system that makes no sense. Instead of dubious degrowth strategies, and shame-and-blame lifestyle politics, we should dig a bit deeper and get to the root of the problem — and kill advertising.