Ad Nauseum: Addressing America’s Advertising Problem

by Haley Mullins

One of the biggest roadblocks to achieving a steady state economy is advertising. While seemingly innovative solutions to consume conscientiously are becoming more prevalent, most people aren’t Marie Kondo-ing their way through each purchase, stopping to question whether the item in their shopping cart will “spark joy.” But how much blame can we really assign consumers when they’ve been dropped onto a hamster wheel of coupons, cash-back credit cards, and “consumer confidence” indicators?

We live in the age of the internet, where we can purchase anything with one click on Amazon. Websites track our movements and preferences as we surf the web, offering us personalized advertisements so we can discover and buy more of what interests us. To put into perspective how expansive advertising is in the USA, China is the second-largest advertising market in the world, yet its ad expenditures are estimated at less than half the amount calculated for the USA.

Advertising and Growth
Super Bowl promotions in a grocery store, featuring doritos advertising.

Super Bowl Sunday might be better named National Advertising Day. (CC BY 2.0, JeepersMedia)

In 1941, right before a baseball game between the Brooklyn Dodgers and Philadelphia Phillies, the first legal TV commercial aired in the USA. It was just ten seconds long and only cost the company nine dollars. Forty years later, the standard for prime-time TV was 9.5 minutes of ads per hour; today, it’s up to 14–17 minutes per hour. The cost of advertising has skyrocketed, too, but marketers are still willing to pay big bucks to make buyers aware of the “Next Big Thing.” In 2020, advertisers spent an average of $5.6 million for a 30-second spot in Super Bowl 54.

Firms advertise to create demand and promote consumption. (I don’t know about you, but I didn’t want socks with my cat’s face on them until I saw a Facebook ad for it.) While firms compete against each other for our business, they rally around the goal of GDP growth. Wall Street and Madison Avenue aren’t far apart—figuratively or politically—and both have skin in the growth game.

Americans have a love-hate relationship with ads though. A typical American might understand the role of advertising in economic growth, yet—apart from Super Bowl Sunday—we detest ads and go to great lengths to avoid them. By 2021, 27 percent of U.S. internet users used ad blockers on their connected devices. Younger generations are particularly put off; 48 percent of Gen Z consumers and 46 percent of Millennials prefer to pay a premium than watch advertisements on streaming video services.

First Things First

Steady staters have some significant hurdles to overcome in the degrowth of the American ad industry, the first of which is the First Amendment.

Advertising falls under the First Amendment right to free speech and free press, the most cherished of our constitutional rights. However, even the sanctity of the First Amendment doesn’t guarantee the freedom to say anything. The circumstances are important, too. Reasonable restrictions of free speech are imposed most notably when public safety is concerned. The classic example of unprotected speech is yelling “Fire!” at the movie theater when no fire exists, as the welfare of people supersedes your right to yell “Fire!”

While advertising isn’t as directly harmful as in this example, the prevalence and effects of advertising—unnecessary consumption, growth, and environmental impact—have become increasingly harmful to public welfare. Advertising restrictions already in place substantiate our cultural awareness of advertising as a danger to the public. Under the law, claims in advertisements must be truthful, and cannot be deceptive or unfair. Additionally, there are restrictions on promoting harmful products like tobacco and alcohol, as well as advertising to children, who can’t interpret ads with a critical lens.

Society understands the power of advertising and the dangers it poses when used manipulatively. Thus, it’s poor reasoning to use the First Amendment as an excuse for “anything goes” in the advertising industry. So, what policies could we enact to moderate advertising, slow consumption, and (in the process) improve wellbeing?

Ad-equate Policies

Defenders of advertising argue the importance of the practice in aiding competition, a fundamental facet of a capitalist system to keep prices low and fair. As American economist Lester Telser once described, “If sellers must identify themselves in order to remain in business, then formally unless they spend a certain minimum amount on advertising their rate of sales will be zero. Regardless of price, buyers would not know of sellers’ existence unless the sellers make themselves known by incurring these advertising outlays.”

1960 Budweiser advertisement with four Black men holding beers and chatting in a kitchen.

Advertising: framing the consumption of market goods as raising one’s quality of life. (CC BY-NC 2.0, ChowKaiDeng)

Touché, Telser. Eliminating the practice of advertising isn’t practical, as people would struggle to discover necessary goods and services. But billions of dollars are spent annually on advertising, far surpassing the optimal scale of the industry. In 2020, U.S. firms spent $240 billion on advertising; all of it tax deductible, as it’s considered a necessary business expense to generate or keep customers. Herman Daly and Joshua Farley argue for advertising taxes in Ecological Economics (Second Edition), declaring it appropriate to tax advertising as a public bad because production should meet existing demand rather than create new demands for whatever gets produced.

But if we’re truly to curb overconsumption of market goods, merely reducing the quantity of advertising will only do so much in the aggregate. To change consumer habits, an alternative to market goods must be introduced. Thus, in addition to taxation, Daly and Farley suggest making media information flows more symmetric so that the public is equally exposed to nonmarket goods as they are to market goods. Essentially, we need a sort of nonprofit advertising to balance out the advertising of firms.

Nonmarket goods, things that are neither bought nor sold directly, do not have a readily quantifiable monetary value. Some examples include visiting the beach, birdwatching, or going for a walk. Perhaps, with more attention given to nonmarket goods, consumer culture might shift to better appreciate our planet and better understand the true cost of frivolously consuming market goods that come from the Earth and return to the Earth as waste. Our resources might then be reallocated to the preservation of invaluable nonmarket goods, a shift that may aid in transitioning to a steady state.

Redefining Ethical Advertising
Cartons of cigarettes with several different warning labels making it clear that smoking is hazardous to people's health.

Full disclosure: unchecked consumption kills people and planet. (CC BY 2.0, kadavy)

The U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) defines “ethical advertising” as “truthful, not deceptive, backed by evidence, and fair.” The FTC assesses the adherence of these principles through the lens of a “reasonable consumer” to determine whether an ad meets the requirements. However, some argue that the FTC has a responsibility to protect the ignorant consumer to the same extent as the reasonable one.

If the last several decades of celebrated economic growth are considered, I’d say the vast majority of consumers fall into the ignorant category—ignorant to limits to growth, at least. Is it not within the scope of ethics, then, to make the true cost of consumption for advertised market goods evident? Is it not deceptive for ads to display a price tag that fails to factor in the environmental costs of production? We have warning labels on tobacco and alcohol products that consumption may lead to adverse effects, so why aren’t we warning buyers of the consequences of consuming other goods?

If we don’t restrict the amount or reach of advertising, the least we can do is demand full-disclosure advertisements that detail the environmental cost of producing and purchasing the product. This would, at minimum, include estimated life-cycle emissions, quantity of natural resources extracted, and the energy required to produce each unit. Such disclosures would, over time, raise awareness of limits to growth and could, perhaps, be the catalyst that converts our culture of conspicuous consumption to one of careful conservation.


Haley Mullins, managing editor for CASSEHaley Mullins is the managing editor at CASSE.

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10 replies
  1. Stephen Quilley
    Stephen Quilley says:

    The trouble is that you are (understandably) directing your fire against ‘trivial’ consumption. But there is no trivial consumption -because in a modern capitalist economy, the cycle of growth drives innovation and produces tax transfers that pay for welfare/health. ‘Trivial’ consumption makes possible liberal individualism and mobility – and all those modern goods that depend upon it. If you like the sexual revolution, most forms of feminism, the free flow of labour, trans-rights, youth culture and a therapeutic approach to self-actualization as the highest good, the welfare state, endless equity interventions to provide for civic/social inclusion …then you are basically a liberal; and if liberal you need growth. If you really want to curtail growth, the STATE as well as the market would need to contract. This means that families/communities would become much more central in delivering security and care; which in turn suggests a much more conservative and probably religious, communitarian forms of place-based livelihood. CASSE is good (very good) at identifying the costs of economic growth. But it is less comfortable pointing to the realities of a post-liberal society. Radical Islam, Christian nationalism, Hindu traditionalism, Catholic agrarianism, Mormonism would all, in different ways, provide a firmer footing for a post-liberal/post consumer society. A society without capitalist advertising and pointless consumption, would be a society with much more limited social and spatial mobility. It would sacrifice forms of consumption and patterns of technical innovation that are fast becoming sacrosanct….Religious critics of Enlightenment and modernity have less (though not ‘no’) trouble with this paradox, because many of exactly these liberal freedoms and emancipations are seen to be intrinsically problematic (and sometimes positively evil). CASSE and similar organizations are only able to have 1/2 this conversation, because they’re deeply liberal. Just a thought

    Reply
    • Haley Mullins
      Haley Mullins says:

      Hi Stephen,
      Thanks for your thought-provoking comment. Lots to digest here.

      Re: “the cycle of growth drives innovation”
      This is definitely a major facet of the pro-growth argument, and a point I’m particularly interested in digging deeper into. Whether/how it’s possible to continue innovation (especially technological innovation) without growth is, I think, a gap in the post-growth literature. It’s something that we’ll definitely have to address, though, if we hope to convince the masses that degrowth to a steady state is our best option.

      Re: “If you really want to curtail growth, the STATE as well as the market would need to contract.”
      I can’t agree more! While outside the scope of this article, there will have to be many moving parts to degrow to a steady state. For the purposes of this piece, however, I was really interested in what policies could be put in place to limit advertising and thus “make the conditions right” (so to speak) for a shift in consumer culture to occur.

      Re: “CASSE…only able to have 1/2 this conversation, because they’re deeply liberal.”
      I think it depends on how you’re defining liberal, truthfully. CASSE prides itself on being nonpartisan, and I tend to agree. What constitutes “liberal” versus “conservative” today, however, is quite fuzzy in many respects, as the two major US politcal parties are experiencing some really complex internal divisions. So, I suppose you could make an argument that CASSE is liberal, but either way, I don’t think that keeps us from having any hard conversations.

      Thanks again for your comments, Stephen!

      Reply
    • Brian Czech
      Brian Czech says:

      I appreciate your thoughtful opinion, Stephen. For now I just want to address your observation that “the cycle of growth drives innovation.” That’s been kind of a specialty of mine, and I think it’s going to become a huge issue in the post-growth dialog.

      I described in Supply Shock (chapter 8) the tight linkage between economic growth and innovation. That description stemmed from this investigation…

      https://steadystate.org/wp-content/uploads/Czech_Technological_Progress.pdf

      …where I also found that a significant portion of the economic growth entails pre-existing technology, thereby cancelling out the prospects for reconciling GDP growth with environmental protection via technological innovation. In other words, the conflict between economic growth and environmental protection is “fundamental,” as expressed in the CASSE position on economic growth.

      I’m probably not telling you anything you don’t already know. But that’s a lead-in to the following.

      In Supply Shock, I then speculated that, in a steady state economy, we might fairly expect the rate of technological progress to become “evolutionary” (incidentally occurring, and very slowly by today’s standards) rather than “revolutionary” (as in the industrial revolution and today’s corporate R&D programs). Some might find that a frightening prospect, but it would take the edge off what the futurist Toffler called “Future Shock” (fifty years ago already!).

      In any event, the macroeconomic options for sustainability boil down to one: a steady state economy. The question is, at what level. I believe we’re reaching a consensus, little by little, that we need degrowth toward a steady state economy. (Plus substantial “contraction and convergence” internationally.)

      More on the liberal/conservative aspects of degrowth and steady statesmanship at a later date. (Haley summarized the CASSE take on that for the time being.)

      Reply
  2. Lorrie Beauchamp
    Lorrie Beauchamp says:

    Having retired from the marketing/advertising world and written a book called “Marketing, My Ass!”, I am familiar with the growing onslaught of messages. I stopped watching television and I avoid social media, which is the new playground for aggressive advertisers. In fact, everyone is selling something, even if it’s only themselves. I enjoyed your perspective on this, but I firmly believe, based on my experience, that tackling it from the end of the “creators” and the money-makers is just a waste of time and energy. Governments will never stop the profiteering allowed through capitalism. We need to rewire the brains of consumers, and provide more incentives to purchase less. I don’t know what the solution is, but it has to be with the power of the people, not the manufacturers and advertisers. They’re too deep in denial.

    Reply
    • Haley Mullins
      Haley Mullins says:

      Hi Lorrie,

      Thanks for your input. I am instantly intrigued by your book just based on the title!

      Re: “Governments will never stop the profiteering allowed through capitalism.”
      I agree. And I think that’s really an important part of our mission here at CASSE: to offer a viable alternative to the current economic system. As we envision how we might transition to a steady state, though, I think measures (such as regulating/taxing advertising) is an important way to begin “rewiring the brains of consumers.” The way firms market goods and services plays an active role in shaping consumer beliefs and habits. If we can put some measures in place that limit what, how, and how much firms can advertise while also raising more awareness of the value of nonmarket goods, I think that our consumption trends will begin to change.

      Reply
  3. Mark Cramer
    Mark Cramer says:

    First, I love the article, which moves me to suggest: how about a warning label on cars hoods (like on cigarettes boxes): “this product could cause death and is toxic to the air we breathe”. Regarding Stephen’s thoughtful comment, I am neither liberal nor conservative. I would add secular examples that could fit with movements like Catholic agrarianism, such as the large Transition Towns Movement. I once wrote up a conservative green new deal, a voluntary plan based on reducing consumption while improving quality of life, that would require neither government funding nor state intervention. Yet my conservative friends and colleagues did not appreciate it. It would seem that Steady State should cross political barriers, may in terrain occupied by neither conservatives nor liberals.

    Reply
    • Haley Mullins
      Haley Mullins says:

      Hi Mark,

      I appreciate your comment. I like your idea about a car warning label; perhaps instead of or in addition to that, we could have such warnings as mandatory parts of driver’s education courses. That way would-be car consumers would have a fuller knowledge of what being a car owner entails before committing to the purchase.

      Reply
    • Haley Mullins
      Haley Mullins says:

      Hi Sukanya,

      Excellent point! It is both “an insidious form of capitalism” and wholly ironic. I find that much of our consumer culture is made up of paradoxes like this.

      Thanks for your comment!

      Reply

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