Advertising is Brain Damage

As global warming deepens, and a somber, new reality sinks in, people are starting to ask some uncomfortable questions: Why, in this ecological age of ours, do we need a $500-billion industry telling us thousands of times each day to consume more? In the affluent West (where 80 percent of the global ad dollars are spent), don't we already consume enough?

As global warming deepens, and a somber, new reality sinks in, people are starting to ask some uncomfortable questions: Why am I being told to buy a new car a dozen times every day? Why am I constantly being urged to splurge on myself 'because I'm worth it'? Why, in this ecological age of ours, do we need a $500-billion industry telling us thousands of times each day to consume more? In the affluent West (where 80 percent of the global ad dollars are spent), don't we already consume enough?

The industry is trying very hard to ward off this kind of thinking. Al Gore was given the rock star treatment at its annual bash in Cannes this year. Young & Rubicam ceo Hamish McLennan, recently told the New York Times: "The consumer sentiment out there is just palpable ... we have to change the way people consume." MTV's slick new campaign, created by six of America's top agencies and slated to be shown in 162 countries, is all about "environmentally friendly lifestyle choices among youth." The copy on their web site, MTVswitch.com, reads: "OK, so we like to consume – that's fine – Switch isn't here to tell you to start hugging trees and become an eco-warrior – although it's fine, if that's what you're into. Nah, all we're here to do is ask you to make little changes to the way you consume. So small are these changes that you won't even notice them."

Meanwhile, an even more ominous threat to the industry is looming: People are starting to blame invasive advertising for the stress in their lives. A few of generations ago, people encountered only a few dozen ads in a typical day. Today, 3,000 marketing messages a day flow into the average North American brain. That's more hype, clutter, sex and violence than many of us can handle on top of all the other pressures of modern life. So, to avoid the stress, the invasion of privacy, the information overload, the erosion of empathy, people are switching off on ad-infested TV, magazines and web sites. There are also fledgling movements now to tax ads, to ban them from schools and even cities (see "São Paolo: A City Without Ads," later in this issue).

The fun image that advertising has traditionally enjoyed is now giving way to a much darker picture of advertising as mental pollution. As more and more people make the connection between advertising and their own mental health, the ad game will be changed forever.