Does it sound arrogant when I say I want to change the world? Maybe. But I just don’t have a better idea for what to do with my life.
To change the world, I try to allow all kinds of thoughts in my mind — including those that seem to contradict my core beliefs and values.
For example, sometimes I question whether we can still afford to treat all political views as equal. When it becomes obvious that much of the conservative, nationalist thinking reinforces so many global conflicts of our times — should these views be seen as equally substantive to the so-called “leftist” pushes for equality and transnationalism?
Same goes for the principles of our economy. Since we accepted that free market should be interfered with as little as possible, it seems that we treat it as some kind of sacred dogma. And when it comes to advertising — virtually no one questions the right that companies possess to promote whatever they want, in whatever manner they see fit.
When I look at the phenomenon of advertising as a whole — I see virtually no benefit it brings to society. Wouldn’t we all be better off if it was banned altogether?
Advertising feeds the most destructive aspects of capitalism
The need for “changing the system” made up a great slogan for the environmental and social justice movements in the past few years. As much as the idealist part of me is dying to join the anti-capitalist rant, living in the real world and talking to real people makes me realize that this is not how we foster change.
If we are to ever “change the system,” it won’t happen by blowing up the capitalist tower one day — and having a brand new shiny socialist (or any other) ship ready for us to onboard the next morning. Systemic change always happens through dismantling small elements of the structure first — and that, eventually, causes the whole status quo to shake.
In my opinion, the most destructive aspect of the system we live in right now is the never-ending urge to consume more. The destruction happens on two levels: the individual and the environmental.
As individuals raised in the consumerist world, we are taught from the early years that life satisfaction is found outside of ourselves. Often, it is acquired by purchasing new objects and experiences through which we obtain a certain social status and the sense of self-worth.
This is the narrative of the advertising world in a nutshell. Commercials we watch every day expose us to the reality which we “should” be aspiring to. We see a beautiful model in an expensive car going on a road trip with a group of dedicated friends — and we feel that we, in comparison to her, are not enough. We must, therefore, strive to achieve the kind of lifestyle that’s presented to us.
This — we unconsciously think — will grant us the happiness we are looking for.
On the global level, overconsumption is arguably the heaviest factor contributing to the destruction of the environment. Because it is the different forms of consuming that provide the go-to ways of granting ourselves the subjective sense of well-being, we naturally feel justified to consume more. The negative impact this has on the planet — for example, in the form of the waste we produce and the greenhouse gases we emit — is undeniable.
The awareness of this impact manifests in the recently booming minimalism and anti-consumption trends as ways to tackle the climate crisis. More often than ever, we talk about the need to cut down on consumption as a much more environmentally-friendly personal choice than recycling. But while the benefits of consuming less are self-evident — we should also be moving away from the narrative that puts the burden of “saving the planet” on the shoulders of individual consumers.
Rather, we need to tackle the issue at the top — through wise decision-making. And I postulate that a wise decision today — both for the environment and for our collective mental health — would be to ban advertising.
Perhaps not having such a destructive psychological stimulus around us all the time would be a game changer in terms of where we allocate our priorities and how we go about our natural drive for happiness?
The psychology of advertising in a nutshell
Successful advertising quite literally means taking control over customers’ will and motives. This is no petty thing.
In a 1904 issue of The Atlantic, psychologist Walter D. Scott cited an anonymous speaker at the Atlas Club of Chicago, who said:
“In passing to the psychological aspect of our subject, advertising might properly be defined as the art of determining the will of possible customers. . . . Our acts are the resultants of our motives, and it is your function in commercial life to create the motives that will effect the sale of the producer’s wares.”
And how does an advertiser shape the motives of potential customers to buy things? Simple. She architects them on people’s experience of lack.
Most of our choices in daily life are directed by the “pleasure principle.” Timothy Pychyl described the pleasure principle as the decisive factor for giving in to temptations — even when, on a rational level, we know that they give us nothing but a shot of instant gratification. Additionally, they often undermine our long-term goals.
In his bestselling book Solving The Procrastination Puzzle, Pychyl says:
“The most important thing to understand is that we ‘give in to feel good.’ That is, we want to feel good now and we will do whatever it takes for immediate mood repair, usually at the expense of long-term goals.”
Advertisers use this “feel good” inclination of ours by employing a technique called affective conditioning in the commercials. Affective conditioning is done by picturing otherwise neutral products (e.g. a toothbrush) next to other things that we already associate with pleasure (e.g. a smiling, successful woman in the company of a loving husband). Thanks to that, customers start associating the product itself with feelings of pleasure and reward.
How efficiently this can work was illustrated in an experiment by Melanie Dempsey and Andrew Mitchell. They presented the participants with two brands of pens. One of the brands was described as offering a better quality product. However, after some of the participants went through an affective conditioning procedure for the objectively worse brand, they were more likely to choose it in the end.
Just because they repeatedly saw the worse quality pen, surrounded by other objects that sparked positive feelings, they favoured it over the objectively better pen 70–80% of the time.
The use of the “pleasure principle” in advertising literally trains us to look for contentment and satisfaction in the material objects of the external world. All our lives we are taught that if we want happiness — we need to buy more.
But advertising also adds to our experience of lack by strengthening natural human inclination to compare ourselves with others.
This is easily observable in influencer marketing when the person selling us the product is someone we follow daily on social media. In that case, the advertising agent becomes more relatable — and hence, we are more likely to compare ourselves to them. This often results in feelings of inferiority and recognizing that we are lacking something to be as happy, successful or pretty as they are.
This “something” is — obviously — the promoted product.
Advertising keeps us in a loop that is akin to an addiction. Some of the advertising agencies are not even trying to hide it. If we want to feel good, we need to buy something that’s currently presented to us as the “key to happiness.” The problem is that once we obtain it, the experience of lack will be generated all over again — so that we feel the need to buy more.
The result of the whole process is that our mental health and happiness become dependant on the possessions we can afford. And because we don’t want to compromise our well-being — we also don’t compromise the levels of consumption.
The latter is, hence, ever-increasing — causing irreversible damage to both our sanity and the environment.
How would the world look like without advertising?
In the times of big problems — but also exponentially increasing awareness of our human condition — we need to look for out-of-the-box solutions. The impact of advertising on society is infinitely more negative than positive. All it does is it driving profit for companies — which would make this profit anyway, provided that their products are really as good as their commercials claim.
The out-of-the-box solution I imagine could work would be to ban advertising altogether. Instead, the advertising industry could be turned into “customer information” institutions, providing accurate and objective information about available products.
Those institutions’ mission wouldn’t be selling — it would be educating.
This way, people would naturally transition to making purchases based on their actual needs, rather than artificially prompted desires. The primary way of promotion would be the world of mouth (which, in practice, it is anyway), which would ensure that only the best products and services get recommended. This would foster a healthy competition of the free market, in which the ultimate achievement would be to release the best quality product possible.
We would naturally buy more of what serves us, instead of spending hard-earned money to experience empty moments of instant gratification — followed by entering the buying loop again.
Call me an idealist (I call myself that), but I think that this may help us shift our focus within. We may then start looking for more authentic ways to happiness inside of ourselves — rather than in the external world. And once we learn how to be happy with what we have, our need to consume would naturally drop.
Planet Earth would certainly thank us for that.