Case Study

Advertising and bigger-than-self problems

This case study presents a possible campaign for a change that could have generic benefits in promoting concern about a range of bigger-than-self problems– for example, environmental challenges, development challenges and inequalities– at a ‘cognitive’ level.

There is not space to develop this case in full here, but there is clear evidence that high levels of exposure to commercial marketing – the average adult sees some 3,000 advertisements a day according to some estimates – has an impact on a person’s values. Greater exposure to commercial marketing is correlated with higher levels of materialism, and lower levels of concern about a range of bigger than-self problems, and there is also good evidence that exposure to commercial advertising actually causes increased levels of materialism (as opposed merely to being correlated with them) (see Section 2.5).

Much advertising directly promotes the self-interest frame, which we know to be unhelpful, and serves to strengthen the goals of financial success, popularity and image, and the values of power and achievement.

There is therefore common interest across a range of civil society organisationsworking to tackle bigger-than-self problems to campaign for reductions in people’s exposure to commercial advertising – particularly, further reductions in children’s exposure. Such campaigns might be best presented in terms of the impacts of commercial marketing upon people’s freedom to ‘think for themselves’ (particularlyin the light of mounting evidence that the most persuasive effects of advertising are unconscious); rather than in terms (for example) of advertising having the effect of increasing the material consumption of unhealthy or unsustainable products. Important as this latter effect is, a crucial benefit of a campaign focused on advertising would be to raise public awareness of the indirect impacts that advertising has on levels of happiness, community feeling, parent-child conflict, etc.

It is possible to envisage a great many other campaigns, each designed to engage at the level of values. These might range, for example, from initiatives to address income inequality, to campaigns that encourage the uptake of wellbeing indicators (rather than economic indicators) as primary measurements of national progress, to projects to encourage the conversion of streets into ‘home zones’, with attendant increases in community cohesion.

This case study was originally published in Common Cause.

Tom Crompton

About Tom Crompton

I'm Change Strategist at WWF-UK. For five years I headed WWF-International's Trade and Investment Programme (working on World Trade Organization issues, for example). While I was (and still am) convinced that international trade policy is crucially important in sustainability terms, I was frustrated by the glacial pace of change on this agenda - and the fact that even those trade negotiators I got to know who were personally quite 'radical' nonetheless felt impotent in a system where there was so little political space to pursue the changes that are needed. This led me to ask how organisations like WWF might begin to work to help create the political space for more ambitious change. What leads to more vocal expressions of public concern about sustainability issues? What motivates people to bring more pressure to bear on their elected leaders? These questions led to work with social psychologists and political scientists, and the publication of a series of reports: "Weathercocks and Signposts: the environment movement at a crossroads" (2008); "Simple and Painless? The limitations of spillover in environmental campaigning" (with John Thogersen, 2008), and "Meeting Environmental Challenges: The Role of Human Identity" (with Tim Kasser, 2009). These pieces of work culminated naturally in our new report, "Common Cause".