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Sucking Out Our Brains Through Our Eyes

By George Monbiot.

Published in the Guardian 24th October 2011

We think we know who the enemies are: banks, big business, lobbyists, the
politicians who exist to appease them. But somehow the sector which
stitches this system of hypercapitalism together gets overlooked. That
seems strange when you consider how pervasive it is. In fact you can
probably see it right now. It is everywhere, yet we see without seeing,
without understanding the role that it plays in our lives.

I am talking about the industry whose output frames this column and pays for
it: advertising. For obvious reasons, it is seldom confronted by either the
newspapers or the broadcasters.

The problem was laid out by Rory Sutherland, when he was president of the
Institute of Practitioners in Advertising. Marketing, he argued, is either
ineffectual or it “raises enormous ethical questions every day”. With
admirable if disturbing candour he concluded that “I would rather be thought
of as evil than useless.”(1) A new report by the Public Interest Research
Centre and WWF opens up the discussion he appears to invite. Think of Me
as Evil? asks the ethical questions that most of the media ignore(2).

Advertising claims to enhance our choice, but it offers us little choice about
whether we see and hear it, and ever less choice about whether we respond
to it. Since Edward Bernays began to apply the findings of his uncle Sigmund
Freud, advertisers have been developing sophisticated means of
overcoming our defences(3). In public they insist that if we become informed
consumers and school our children in media literacy we have nothing to fear
from their attempts at persuasion. In private they employ neurobiologists to
find ever more ingenious methods of bypassing the conscious mind.

Pervasiveness and repetition act like a battering ram against our minds. The
first time we see an advertisement, we are likely to be aware of what it’s
telling us and what it is encouraging us to buy. From then on, we process it
passively, absorbing its imagery and messages without contesting them, as
we are no longer fully switched on. Brands and memes then become linked
in ways our conscious minds fail to detect. As a report by the progressive
thinktank Compass explains, the messages used by advertisers are
designed to trigger emotional rather than rational responses(4). The low
attention processing model developed by Robert Heath at the University of
Bath shows how, in a crowded advertising market, passive and implicit
learning become the key drivers of emotional attachment(5). They are
particularly powerful among children, as the pre-frontal cortex – which helps
us to interpret and analyse what we see – is not yet fully developed.

Advertising agencies build on this knowledge to minimise opportunities for
the rational mind to intervene in choice. The research company TwoMinds,
which has worked for Betfair, the drinks company Diageo, Mars, Nationwide
and Waitrose, works to “uncover a layer of behavioural drivers that have
previously remained elusive”(6). New developments in neurobiology have
allowed it to home in on “intuitive judgements” that “are made
instantaneously and with little or no apparent conscious effort on the part of
consumers – at point of purchase”(7).

The power and pervasiveness of advertising helps to explain, I believe, the
remarkable figure I stumbled across last week while reading the latest
government spreadsheet on household spending. Households in the UK put
an average of just £5.70 a week, or £296 a year, into savings and investments
(8). Academic research suggests a link between advertising and both
consumer debt and the number of hours we work(9,10,11). People who watch
a lot of advertisements appear to save less, spend more and use more of
their time working to meet their rising material aspirations. All three
outcomes can have terrible impacts on family life. They also change the
character of the nation. Burdened by debt, without savings, we are less free,
less resilient, less able to stand up to those who bully us.

Invention is the mother of necessity. To keep their markets growing,
companies must keep persuading us that we have unmet needs. In other
words, they must encourage us to become dissatisfied with what we have. To
be sexy, beautiful, happy, relaxed, we must buy their products. They shove
us onto the hedonic treadmill, on which we must run ever faster to escape a
growing sense of inadequacy. The problem this causes was identified almost
300 years ago. In Robinson Crusoe, published in 1719, the hero remarks, “it
put me to reflecting, how little repining there would be among mankind, at
any condition of life, if people would rather compare their condition with
those that are worse, in order to be thankful, than be always comparing them
with those which are better, to assist their murmurings and complainings.”
(12) Advertising encourages us to compare ourselves to those we perceive
to be better off. It persuades us to trash our happiness and trash the
biosphere to answer a craving it exists to perpetuate.

But perhaps the most important impact explored by Think of Me As Evil? is
the one we discuss the least: the effect it has on our values. Our social
identity is shaped by values which psychologists label as either extrinsic or
intrinsic. People with a strong set of intrinsic values place most weight on
their relationships with family, friends and community. They have a sense of
self-acceptance and a concern for other people and the environment.
People with largely extrinsic values are driven by a desire for status, wealth
and power over others. They tend to be image-conscious, to have a strong
desire to conform to social norms and to possess less concern for other
people or the planet. They are also more likely to suffer from anxiety and
depression and to report low levels of satisfaction with their lives(13).

We are not born with our values: they are embedded and normalised by the
messages we receive from our social environment. Most advertising
appeals to and reinforces extrinsic values. It doesn’t matter what the
product is: by celebrating image, beauty, wealth, power and status, it helps
create an environment which shifts our value system. Some advertisements
appear to promote intrinsic values, associating their products with family life
and strong communities. But they also create the impression that these
values can be purchased, which demeans and undermines them. Even love
is commingled with material aspiration, and those worthy of this love mostly
conform to a narrow conception of beauty, lending greater weight to the
importance of image.

I detest this poison, but I also recognise that I am becoming more dependent
on it. As sales of print editions decline, newspapers lean even more heavily
on advertising. Nor is the problem confined to the commercial media. Even
those who write only for their own websites rely on search engines,
platforms and programmes ultimately funded by advertising. We’re hooked
on a drug that is destroying society. As with all addictions, the first step is to
admit to it.


1. Rory Sutherland, 2010. We can’t run away from the ethical debates in
marketing. Market Leader, Q1, page 59, quoted in Jon Alexander, Tom
Crompton and Guy Shrubsole, October 2011. Think Of Me As Evil?
Opening The Ethical Debates In Advertising. Public Interest Research Centre
and WWF-UK.

2. Jon Alexander, Tom Crompton and Guy Shrubsole, October 2011. Think Of
Me As Evil?
Opening The Ethical Debates In Advertising. Public Interest Research Centre
and WWF-UK.

3. See Adam Curtis’s 2002 series The Century of the Self.

4. Zoe Gannon and Neal Lawson, 2010. The Advertising Effect: How do we get
the balance
of advertising right? Compass.

5. See for example Robert Heath and Agnes Nairn, 2005. Measuring affective
advertising: Implications of low attention processing on recall. Journal of
Advertising Research, 45 (2), pp. 269-281.



8. I was sent the spreadsheet by the Office of National Statistics. It’s Table A1
of the Family Spending publication: Components of household expenditure,
2009. It appears to be behind a paywall online: http://www.palgrave-journals.
com/fsp/journal/v2010/n1/pdf/fsp20107a.pdf#page=2 This is government data
– what’s going on?

9. Eg Matthew J. Baker and Lisa M. George, 2010. The Role of Television in
Household Debt: Evidence
from the 1950′s. The B.E. Journal of Economic Analysis & Policy: Vol. 10: Iss. 1
(Advances), Article 41.

10. Stuart Fraser And David Paton. Does advertising increase labour supply?
Time series evidence from the UK. Applied Economics, 2003, 35, 1357–1368.

11. L. Golden, ‘A Brief History of Long Work Time and the Contemporary
Sources of Overwork’, Journal of Business Ethics, 84, 2009, pp. 217–227,
cited by Jon Alexander, Tom Crompton and Guy Shrubsole, as above.

12. I don’t have my copy handy and can’t remember which edition it is, but
the notes I took when I read it tell me that this passage is on page 132, for
what that’s worth.

13. Zoe Gannon and Neal Lawson, as above, citing the work of the
psychologists Richard Ryan and Tim Kasser.