How Advertising Fuels the Climate Crisis: Interview with Tim Kasser
by Ian Sinclair
12 January 2021
With the climate crisis likely to be high on the political agenda this year – the UK is hosting the next round of United Nations climate talks in November 2021 – a new publication from the New Weather Institute think tank and the climate action charity Possible is well timed.
The report, Advertising’s Role in Climate and Ecological Destruction: What Does the Scientific Research Have to Say?, is written by Tim Kasser, Emeritus Professor of Psychology at Knox College in the United States, and author of books such as Hypercapitalism (2018) and The High Price of Materialism (2002).
Ian Sinclair asked Kasser about the connection between advertising and climate change, the role of television and what governments and citizens can do to address the issue.
Ian Sinclair: How does advertising contribute to the climate and ecological crises we are now experiencing?
Tim Kasser: Some industries have direct effects on climate and ecological crises. For example, the auto, oil, airlines, and many other industries release CO2 and pollution, and industries like agribusiness destroy habitat. Other industries have indirect effects on climate and ecological crises. For example, some banks provide financing to the auto, oil, airlines, and agribusiness industries. So, while the banks themselves don’t have a big direct effect on the climate or ecology, their actions support those industries that do have big direct effects. Our recent report suggests that advertising has similar indirect effects on the environment.
The report presents scientific evidence for four pathways through which advertising indirectly causes climate and ecological damage. These four pathways include two products, beef and tobacco, that research shows are both damaging to the environment and whose consumption is increased as a result of advertising. The two other pathways we examine are materialistic values and “the work & spend cycle.” I’ll say more about those in a moment, but the main point for now is that research shows that both materialism and the work & spend cycle are increased by advertising and that both are associated with negative environmental outcomes.
We suspect that there are other pathways through which advertising has indirect negative effects on the environment, but these were the four pathways that had the most solid scientific evidence behind them, and so they were the ones that we wrote about.
IS: The report highlights the important role played by television in this process. What does the evidence show?
TK: In many nations the biggest television channels are owned by for-profit companies whose revenue depends upon selling advertisements. The vast majority of those advertisements are designed to encourage viewers to spend their money on certain products (like pizza), services (like automobile repair), or experiences (like trips on a cruise ship). These advertisements almost inevitably suggest that a viewer’s life would be happier, safer, or better in any number of ways if the viewer would buy what is advertised.
When people are exposed to these messages thousands of times per day, day after day, year after year from early childhood onward, the research shows that they come to prioritize the acquisition of money and possessions, or what researchers call “materialism.” Many studies show that the more that people watch television, the more materialistic they are. Further, experimental studies show that people become more materialistic after being exposed to the kinds of advertising messages they see on television, compared to being exposed to more neutral messages.
Research studies with people of many ages and from many nations also show that when people are more materialistic, they care less about environmental damage, are less likely to behave in ways that help the environment (e.g., by recycling), and are more likely to behave in ways that hurt the environment (e.g., by owning petrol-guzzling autos and living in large homes).
In sum, this body of research suggests that advertising on television (and elsewhere) has an indirect effect on climate and ecological degradation through encouraging materialistic values and goals.
IS: The report also argues there is a link between advertising, a long hours work culture and the environment. Can you explain this?
TK: As I said earlier, the primary goal of most advertisements is to convince people to spend their money on the advertised product, service, or experience. In order to spend money, one either has to go into debt or to earn money, and the way that most people can earn money is by working. Some studies document that the more that people see advertisements, the more hours they work. Researchers think that when people see a lot of ads they decide that working in order to earn money to buy stuff is more important than other options for one’s time, like relaxing, spending time with friends and family, or volunteering.
The problem is that the research also shows that working long work is associated with more climate and ecological damage. There are two explanations for this. One is that when a lot of people work a lot of hours and make a lot of money which they use to consume stuff, that all “scales up” and creates a lot of ecological damage. The second explanation is that when people work long hours, they have less time to pursue more sustainable ways of life – it takes more time to ride one’s bike or take public transport than to hop in one’s car and drive somewhere. Both of these explanations are probably valid.
IS: Though the report doesn’t look at it, how do you think governments and citizens might reduce the negative effects advertising has on the climate and our ecology?
TK: There are many governmental actions that could reduce advertising’s negative effects. I’ll mention just four that some governments have already tried.
First, cities like Sao Paulo, Brazil and Grenoble, France place limits on where advertisements are allowed. Other cities could develop similar policies that only allow ads in commercial locations and that remove ads from public locations like highways, buses and subways, schools, parks, etc.
Second, the nations of Sweden, Norway, and Brazil have each banned advertising to children. Other nations could develop similar policies to help the next generation from being socialized into the consumerist mindset.
Third, the nation of Hungary and the US state of Maryland have attempted to remove the tax breaks that advertisers currently enjoy. These attempts have received substantial push-back. But if other governments developed similar policies, they would not only obtain needed revenue, but they would make advertising more expensive and therefore potentially less desirable for companies.
Finally, governments all over the world have banned certain types of advertisements for cigarettes, in the recognition that this product is extremely unhealthy. Similar policies could be put in place to ban ads that encourage consumption of environmentally-damaging products, like SUVs, and services, like airline flights.
Citizens can become involved by voting for representatives who support such policies and by petitioning their local governments to enact such policies. In their personal lives, citizens can use ad block apps on the Internet and unsubscribe from media that are replete with advertisements.
Advertising’s Role in Climate and Ecological Destruction is free to download from http://www.badverts.org/reports-and-publications.