Time to tame advertising?

Saturday 17 October, 12.00 until 13.00, Frobisher 1-3, Barbican Growing Pains

From the furore over ‘body-shaming’ adverts such as Protein World’s Tube posters to criticism of YouTube vlogger Zoella for promoting junk food, there have been growing calls for tougher regulations on advertising that promotes unhealthy lifestyles - with children and young people regarded as particularly vulnerable to such messages.

Public health campaigners have suggested the UK should adopt France’s tough loi evin laws, which prohibit alcohol advertising on film and television, along with sponsorship of sports and other profile events. Following on from the coalition government’s decision to introduce plain packaging for cigarettes, some suggest that the ideas should extend even to foods with high salt or fat content. Adverts for such foods are already banned around TV shows aimed at children. Increasingly advertising is being held to account for the social ills it is seen to create. There have been accusations that adverts are promoting eating disorders and sexism through increasingly sexualised imagery, with the Advertising Standards Authority repeatedly banning American Apparel for the use of especially youthful looking models.

Advertisers respond that the UK’s restrictions are already amongst the toughest in the Western world. Critics counter, however, that internet advertising is unfairly able to circumvent such regulations and actively encourages advertisers to flout them in the hope of generating viral outrage. Yet some say this is hardly a bad thing, that advertising is a perfectly legitimate and creative form of entertainment, which invariably makes consumers choose between products rather than manufacture new desires. Yet from Vance Packard’s 1957 best-seller, The Hidden Persuaders, there persists a cultural anxiety that advertisers are engaged in underhand methods to sell us their wares: for Packard’s ‘motivational research’ back then, read contemporary ‘neuro-marketing’ today. On the other hand, today’s advertisers are also equally keen to assert their ability to sell the ‘social good’ to people, ranging from the likes of Dove’s ‘Real Beauty’ campaigns promoting good female body image through to increasingly hard-hitting NGO awareness campaigns and the promise to ‘nudge’ us into healthier behaviour.

Is today’s discomfort around advertising rooted less in the marketing techniques themselves than the products they sell? Or does there remain an unease that a new brand of neuro-marketers will continue to find sinister new ways to sell us products we never knew we wanted? Does concern around advertising generally reveal more about contemporary anxieties over free will and morality rather than the mad men’s malign influence, or does the digital age require a tougher framework than ever before? Where does the line fall between good salesmanship and outright dishonesty?

Listen to the debate

Martin Daubney
award-wining editor, journalist, and broadcaster; columnist for Telegraph Men

Isabelle Szmigin
professor of marketing, University of Birmingham; author, Understanding the Consumer

Ella Whelan
assistant editor, spiked

Nathalie Rothschild
freelance journalist; producer and reporter for Sweden's public service radio

Produced by
David Bowden associate fellow, Academy of Ideas; culture writer
Recommended readings
The teen angst of the protein world protests

Feminism poses a bigger threat to womanhood than those ads ever could.

Ella Whelan, spiked, 28 April 2015

Why Online Advertising Should Be Regulated

Regulation provides guidelines, promotes growth.

Auren Hoffman, AdExchanger, 11 June 2010

The Problem with Advertising

It’s awfully easy to whine about bad marketing, but that’s a little like faulting the vodka for your hangover. Alcohol is inert; blaming it is silliness. Sometimes we just make bad choices. Marketing is a part of life, and the reason it so often fails relates to who does it and for what reasons.

Eric Karjaluoto, smashLAB Inc, 31 October 2009

The Positive Effects of Advertising

Some of our society's most important messages have come through advertising, like 'Friends don't let friends drive drunk.'

Miranda Morley, Small Business

The Psychology of Advertising

Advertisements are sometimes spoken of as the nervous system of the business world ... As our nervous system is constructed to give us all the possible sensations from objects, so the advertisenent which is comparable to the nervous system must awaken in the reader as many different kinds of images as the object itself can excite

Walter D. Scott, The Atlantic, January 1904

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