Advertising Adapts and Grows, Spreading Consumerism Ever Further

It’s always striking to see how well marketers adapt to changing environments, keeping ahead of consumers’ changing attitudes and behaviors—attitudes they of course help to shape in the first place. As consumers have found ways to avoid and resist traditional forms of advertising (using digital TV recorders and Adblock Plus, for example), advertisers have turned to more subtle techniques such as promotional material on blogs, product placement, ads in suprising places, and interactive advertising on social media such as Facebook and Twitter.

Lockers from 15 St. Francis

School districts like this one in Minnesota, use advertising revenues to supplement funding, but inadvertently promote unsustainable consumption in the process.

Advertising in schools is one particularly pernicious example of ad creep in public spheres, in some cases infiltrating nearly all aspects of student life. Examples of this include free book covers featuring Kellogg’s Pop Tarts and Fox TV characters, nutrition curriculum provided by Hershey’s, business course curriculum from McDonald’s that gives students instructions for applying for a job at the fast-food chain, and a video on environmental issues produced by Shell Oil.

And the global bombardment of ads has gone up significantly in the past year. In 2012, advertising expenditures grew 3.3 percent worldwide, continuing the gradual rebound in global ad spending since the 2008-2009 financial crisis. While the United States remains the world’s largest ad market by far, advertising spending is growing fastest in the Asia/Pacific region with 7.9 percent growth last year (excluding Japan).

Gap Jeans Ad

Advertising like this Gap Kids ad for children’s jeans shape girls’ body image from a young age.

While some analysts hail the recovery of ad spending as a sign of economic recovery, the current trajectory has serious negative implications. The impacts of advertising and consumerism on all aspects of society and culture—from food choices to young girls’ self-image—are well documented. Advertising targeted at children is particularly penetrating and influential, defining their identity as consumers from an early age and interfering with normal childhood development. Evidence has shown that children are experiencing increased physical, emotional, and social harm as a result of consumerism through advertising.

Advertisers have also sought to capitalize on growing public concern over environmental threats through “green” marketing. However, false advertising and deceptive environmental claims have become so rampant that the U.S. Federal Trade Commission established updated Green Guides in 2012 that will allow it to take enforcement action against deceptive environmental marketing.  The guidelines discourage the use of general and unsubstantiated terms such as “eco-friendly” and include strong guidelines for use of terms such as “biodegradable” and “recyclable.”


Dawn—made from petrochemicals itself—offers to help save wildlife from oil spills in its newest ad campaign. Greenwash, good will, or penance?

While regulatory controls on false advertising such as the Green Guides are a positive development, true sustainability will ultimately require less material consumption and therefore stronger overall limits on advertising to stem its global growth and increasing presence in everyday life.

–Written by Shakuntala Makhijani

Shakuntala is a research associate at Worldwatch Institute and contributing author to State of the World 2013.

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