‘More, New, Better’ Behind Climate/Nature Crisis

Advertising drives dangerously dysfunctional consumer society

‘More, new, better’ are the biggest drivers of the climate crisis, deforestation, biodiversity loss, plastic pollution, pesticide contamination and pretty well every other environmental problems. ‘More, new, better’ are the central pillars of a dangerously dysfunctional consumer society embraced by nearly every country. And that’s why humanity is devouring our planet’s resources 1.7 times faster than they can regenerate. 

Need-to-Know 1: If everyone consumed as much as Americans or Canadians we’d need 5 planets.

Despite growing awareness of the multiple environmental crisis our rates of consumption continue to increase. Adjusted for inflation, consumer spending in the US has grown 400% since the first Earth Day in 1970. The US population is 60% larger than 1970, not 400% higher so clearly people are buying a heck of a lot more stuff today. 

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We have so much stuff, it is spilling out of our homes and created the self-storage industry. There are about 50,000 self-storage facilities in America today with enough space to store a stack of boxes from every living person in the country.

None of this is an accident. We are victims of a decades-long, unprecedented propaganda effort to convince each of us that contentment, happiness, self-worth, identity, and even good citizenship and patriotism comes from buying ‘more, new, better’ stuff. 

This ‘more, new, better’ propaganda is backed by government and business and powered by a US $750 billion annual global advertising budget. That’s about $100 every year for every person on the planet. And yet more than 700 million people live on less than $2 a day.

Of that $750 billion, some $300 billion a year is now being spent in online advertising: Banner ads, rich media, advertorial and sponsorship, online video, social media and more. That’s 10 times more than a decade ago. Why? Because that’s where we are. Globally, the daily average of time spent online was almost 7 hours during the pandemic. 

Need-to-Know 2: We are exposed to as many as 5,000 advertisements per day

That $750 billion is being spent because advertising works to persuade people to want things they don't really need. 

Don’t think advertising influences you? 

You’d be wrong according to researchers. 

We Keep Buying Bottled Water Because We Fear Death

That’s the headline from a story I wrote a few years ago for Vice. I wondered why so many people carted cases of bottled water out of supermarkets in places with exceptional public drinking water. Every year Americans and Canadians spend (waste?) $20 billion on water in little plastic bottles. Often that water is just tap water. (Some places like Flint, Michigan, and some First Nations communities do have poor quality drinking water and need bottled water.)

To sell a product most people already get at home for next to nothing advertisers go beyond claiming their product is safer or better to sell us youth and immortality. Bottled water ads use phrases like “Drink Better. Live Better”; in commercials people drinking bottled water walk past a window and see themselves as babies in the reflection. 

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Those are ridiculous claims. And yet these work at a sub-conscious level because these ads subtly manipulate the defenses we all use to deal with our conscious and unconscious fear of death. These defenses influence our behaviours, our self-esteem, and outlook studies show.

"Pro-bottle water advertisements rely heavily on branding, celebrity, and feel-good emotions that trigger our group identities and patriotism,” said co-author Sarah Wolfe, researcher at Waterloo's Faculty of Environment.

Those kinds of ads appeal to people whose self-esteem is strongly based on physical appearance, fitness levels, material and financial wealth, class, and status, Wolfe said.

Research also shows commercials were often still effective even when people consciously resisted being influenced.   

“If you see 20 commercials, and are trying not to be influenced, for four or five of them, you are going to fail and your attitudes are going to be changed despite your best efforts,” said co-author Steven Sweldens, Professor of Consumer Behavior and Marketing at Rotterdam School of Management in Holland Erasmus University. 

Need-to-Know 3: Don’t think for a second you are immune to advertising.

Here’s how advertising works its subtle magic on you:

  1. Products are linked to pleasing images and music that will appeal to certain individuals. This is called “evaluative conditioning”.  

  2. Those positive links to celebrities, images or sounds in ads moves us to favor certain brands and purchase them. 

Sweldens trained, and even paid people, to resist ads of certain brands in a series of experiments. It didn’t work. “Advertising imagery had automatic, uncontrollable effects” he concluded

During breaks in the experiments people were given a variety of bottled water brands to drink. “Sure enough, those with the most positive image association were consumed in greater quantities,” he found.

Need-to-Know 4: "Resistance is Futile". Our ability to resist the appeal of ad campaigns employing powerful images is extremely limited.

Sweldens warns that advertising has become so effective we’re losing our ability to choose. "You will be assimilated" to quote a Borg drone from TV’s Star Trek.

Governments need to play a bigger role in regulating advertising he said.

However governments have been one of the biggest backers of ‘more, new, better’ propaganda. Since the end of World World II policy makers, business and labor leaders put mass consumption at the center of their plans for a prosperous postwar recovery. 

The American Dream was firmly linked to consumerism. Mass consumption was touted as the solution for everything including poverty, war, inequality, democracy and personal well-being and happiness. 

The United States government had a major role in promoting the concept that, “the general good was best served not by frugality or even moderation, but by individuals pursuing personal wants in a flourishing mass consumption marketplace” 

That message has now spread throughout the world thanks to hundreds of billions of dollars in advertising, media and in government policies and statements.

An analysis of messaging by the US government over the past 40 years concluded the government continuously links moral values to markets. More significantly, for the neoliberal market system to work, the state cannot restrict itself to ensuring free and fair competition but also shapes consumer subjectivities to support the system.

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Need-to-Know 5: Anti-consumption rule of thumb: Every time you spend a dollar you’re consuming.

If you’re spending more then your impact on the planet is likely increasing. Spend less and it’s probably decreasing.

The road to a higher quality of life

Making the decision to spending less frees up time to spend with family, friends, going outside, on hobbies or getting involved with your community. Those are activities that bring meaning, satisfaction and joy into our lives, in other words a higher quality of life.

Need-to-Know 6: An anti-consumption society is all about quality not quantity.

In this new society economic goals would no longer be focused on increasing GDP but on balancing a good quality of life for all without severely impacting nature or the climate. That is the very conclusion from the first-ever collaboration between biodiversity scientists and climate sciences from the IPCC on how to successfully tackle climate, nature, inequality and other challenges we face.

This society would make durable goods that are repairable, with tax subsidies to make repair cheaper than buying new. Planned obsolescence would be banned and products would be required to last. This society would be based on what’s known as a Circular Economy. There is no other viable choice but to create this. Luckily governments in Europe finally understand this and are creating the first major circular economy. The rest of the world must soon follow.

For this to be successful ‘more, better, new’ product advertising must become ‘durable, reusable, repairable’ advertising.

More on that next time. Until then, please stay strong and stay safe.

Stephen