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The changing nature of advertising

By Sarah Burnside - posted Friday, 26 February 2010

In recent years, discrete areas of advertising have been the focus of controversy. The increasing sexualisation of children in advertising has received a great deal of oxygen; it is the subject of the 2006 “Corporate Paedophilia” report by the Australia Institute and books by figures such as Melinda Tankard Reist; a lobby group entitled “Kids Free 2B Kids” has been established to counter this phenomenon. Concern about childhood obesity has led to calls to ban the marketing of junk food to children (an option with which Kevin Rudd briefly flirted), endless repeats of “it’s all the parents’ fault”, and the implementation of the “Australian Quick Service Restaurant Industry Initiative for Responsible Advertising and Marketing to Children” that has been recently critiqued as ineffective.

The ongoing debate about eating disorders and self-esteem in young girls and size zero models is, at base, about advertising: what are models but human advertisements for clothing?

Although there is a legal framework within which advertisers operate - the Trade Practices Act 1974 (Cth) and various state Fair Trading legislation - the industry is largely left to police itself. The Australian Association of National Advertisers, which states that it has a “strong ongoing commitment to self-regulation”, assisted in developing codes of conduct and ethics between 1996 and 1997. These include specific codes relating to marketing targeted at children and advertising of food and drink. Complaints that an advertisement breaches a code can be made in writing to the Advertising Standards Bureau.


The ASB explains on its website that the codes are “premised on the basis that advertisements should be legal, decent, honest and truthful, prepared with a set of social responsibility to the consumer and society as a whole and with due respect to the rules of fair competition”, and concludes that self-regulation “has proven to be the best method of responding quickly, efficiently, and effectively to consumers’ concerns about advertising”. No doubt many other industries would appreciate a system in which they help set the rules and choose whether to obey them.

Last week, the UK-based think-tank Compass released a challenging report (PDF 788KB), written by Zoe Gannon and Neal Lawson, which focuses on the advertising industry and its role in British society. Entitled The Advertising Effect: How Do We Get the Balance Right?, Gannon and Lawson’s report goes deeper than the “hot button” concerns discussed above, asking the extent to which citizens can accept the intrusion of the market into our daily lives. The report notes that the advertising industry is changing dramatically and suggests that “as a society, rather than just a market … we need to understand the consequences of the changing nature of advertising and make decisions about what, if anything, should be done to counter it”.

Advertisements are inherently manipulative, in the truest sense of the word: they seek to persuade us to take a course of action. Not all such persuasion is necessarily pernicious. Anti-smoking campaigns ask us to change our minds about smoking. The current advertisements, focusing on people talking about the loss of their loved ones from cancer, are particularly (and appropriately) heart-rending. Equally, although the industry can invoke our deepest and most sincere instincts against us - maternal love, fear for one’s family, shame, guilt and lust - not all advertisements are necessarily harmful.

Critics of the advertising industry are easily derided as dour, hair-shirted Calvinists who seek to impose their way of life on others, but, as Gannon and Lawson note: “No one wants a world in which we don’t all share the enjoyment of funny adverts.” The report focuses on the effect of the sheer omnipresence of advertising on society and on children in particular. The innovative methods used to sell to us - unsolicited text messages, product placement, targeted advertising on the internet derived from data kept by search engines about our individual preferences, and “buzz marketing”, where people are paid to recommend or use a product to encourage others to purchase it - contribute to a world where advertising is inescapable.

Of course, it is not enough to buy; we must buy as much and as often as possible, regularly upgrading as the formerly new and shiny becomes outdated and obsolete. The report cites the absurd example of razors which come with six blades and will no doubt soon be equipped with seven, eight or nine. (Remember the Late Show parody of the 16-blade “Gillette 3000”, designed in conjunction with NASA and promising “the smoothest and most ludicrously convoluted shave every time”?) The example is minor, but the relentless drive to consume encourages us to compete for status, puts us on an endless quest for material fulfillment, and ultimately results in feelings of inadequacy. Some are particularly vulnerable to exploitation by advertisers; the report cites studies demonstrating that children under 12 lack the cognitive ability to realise when they are being sold to.

Such studies might be disputed. Guardian columnist and political reviewer Jackie Ashley, although overall supportive of the report, suggests that children “bombarded by advertising” might not be mere passive recipients; exposure to “heavy selling from a young age produces cynicism as well as interest”.


More broadly, she notes that people “aren’t putty: if advertisers are endlessly adaptable, so are their targets”. It is commonly argued that the modern consumer, regardless of their age, is savvy enough not to be duped by advertising. Those in support of an unregulated advertising industry can easily construct a straw man to deploy: we are not mere Pavlov’s dogs; we have the critical faculties to analyse, explore and ultimately reject advertisements; regulation would patronise an intelligent populace.

As Ashley notes, such responses are “cavils about a bigger argument”: the kind of people and the kind of society that is shaped by advertising. In the aftermath of the global financial crisis, she concludes that “if ever there was a time to reflect on the scale of that consumption, that borrowing and that waste, and to rein it back in, that time is now”.

Among other things, The Advertising Effect proposes a ban on advertising in public places (such as train stations and bus shelters), restrictions on shop-front marketing, bans on advertising to children under 12, alcohol advertising, and viral marketing, and new taxes and regulations for advertisers themselves. Tim Lefroy, chief executive of the Advertising Association, responded to The Advertising Effect, critiquing its call for a ban on advertising in public spaces. Lefroy argued: “To suggest that a free society requires the state to dictate when, where and how we communicate with each other contradicts the concept of liberty and free thought and speech.”

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About the Author

Sarah Burnside is a freelance writer with experience in law and policy. She tweets cautiously at @SarahEBurnside.

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