Posted on Jan 23, 2020
Do you think advertising affects the way you think? It’s natural, it seems, for us not to think that the choices we make and the beliefs that we hold are shaped by advertisements to any real extent. We always ascribe ourselves with more agency than we do other people. And this makes sense; whose beliefs are actually swayed by an advertisement? Who bases their preferred political party on a pithy short film featuring stock footage people?
Yet this viewpoint can’t really be true. Advertising is an absolutely enormous industry, with about $190 billion spent on it in the United States alone. With pretty much every company employing the use of advertisements, it’s simply not possible that they are ineffective. The answer of course, is that advertising doesn’t change the behaviour or beliefs of individuals reliably, or on a case by case basis with any accuracy. Done well however, with the right topic, it’s a way to use money to move the distribution of opinions, behaviour, or knowledge of a group of people.
Taking this view of advertising as being innately quite sinister, it is one of my strongest social views that society in general takes far too laissez-faire of an approach to advertising, especially political advertising. We don’t need to tolerate adverts, in most respects, and they can actually be quite harmful in a number of ways.
Taking the example of political advertisements; on what basis should we choose our representatives? Several factors immediately come to mind - policies, credibility, character, track record, being some of them.
Ordinarily, we have opportunities to find all of these things out: debates on public broadcasting channels, manifestos that are publically available. It’s possible to find out the track record of existing MPs using some excellent online tools. So why do we let politicians advertise? All that allows is for politicians and political parties with more money and a better PR team get an advantage by influencing the population. It allows for a form of public debate in which there is only one participant, and no moderator. They contribute nothing to a healthy political climate.
The current consensus is that we shouldn’t ban advertisements unless they are factually inaccurate. But that paints advertising by default with a credibility and good intention that it has not earned. In my opinion the opposite is true; the practice of advertising needs much more scrutiny, only being allowed in contexts where it is evidently not harmful. Politics is not one of those contexts.