Advertising: a Force for Conservation?

These two views seem to go together often:

1. People are consuming too much
2. The advertising industry makes people want things they wouldn’t otherwise want, worsening the problem

The reasoning behind 1) is usually that consumption requires natural resources, and those resources will run out. It follows from this that less natural-resource intensive consumption is better* i.e. the environmentalist prefers you to spend your money attending a dance or a psychologist than buying new clothes or jet skis, assuming the psychologist and dance organisers don’t spend all their income on clothes and jet skis and such.

How does the advertising industry get people to buy things they wouldn’t otherwise buy? One practice they are commonly accused of is selling dreams, ideals, identities and attitudes along with products. They convince you (at some level) that if you had that champagne your whole life would be that much more classy. So you buy into the dream though you would have walked right past the yellow bubbly liquid.

But doesn’t this just mean they are selling you a less natural-resource-intensive product? The advertisers have packaged the natural-resource intensive drink with a very non-natural-resource intensive thing – classiness – and sold you the two together.

Yes, maybe you have bought a drink you wouldn’t otherwise have bought. But overall this deal seems likely to be a good thing from the environmentalist perspective: it’s hard to just sell pure classiness, but the classy champagne is much less resource intensive per dollar than a similar bottle of unclassy drink, and you were going to spend your dollars on something (effectively – you may have just not earned them, which is equivalent to spending them on leisure).

If the advertiser can manufacture enough classiness for thousands of people with a video camera and some actors, this is probably a more environmentally friendly choice for those after classiness than most of their alternatives, such as ordering stuff in from France. My guess is that in general, buying intangible ideas along with more resource intensive products is better for the environment than the average alternative purchase a given person would make. There at least seems little reason to think it is worse.

Of course that isn’t the only way advertisers make people want things they wouldn’t otherwise want. Sometimes they manufacture fake intangible things, so that when you get the champagne it doesn’t really make you feel classy. That’s a problem with dishonest people in every industry though. Is there any reason to blame ‘advertisers’ rather than ‘cheats’?

Another thing advertisers do is tell you about things you wouldn’t have thought of wanting otherwise, or remind you of things you had forgotten about. When innovators and entrepreneurs do this we celebrate it. Is there any difference when advertisers do it? Perhaps the problem is that advertisers tend to remind you of resource intensive, material desires more often than they remind you to consume more time with your brother, or to meditate more. This is somewhat at odds with the complaint that they try to sell you dreams and attitudes etc, but perhaps they do a bit of both.

Or perhaps they try to sell you material goods to satisfy longings you would otherwise fulfil non-materially? For instance recommending new clothes where you might otherwise have sought self-confidence through posture or public speaking practice or doing something worthy of respect. Some such effect seems plausible, though I doubt a huge one.

Overall it seems advertisers probably have effects in both directions. It’s not clear to me which is stronger. But insofar as they manage to package up and sell feelings and identities and other intangibles, those who care for the environment should praise them.

*This is not to suggest that I believe natural resource conservation is particularly important, compared to using human time well for instance.

Katja Grace is a philosophy student who blogs at

2 Responses

  1. Archon says:

    While you may not concern yourself with conservation of paltry natural resources (at best a questionable stance) the proliferation of disposable consumerist culture will inevitably lead to the production of more waste. Assuming we intend to inhabit the earth indefinitely, it may be wise to consider the possibility of increasing populations and the acceleration of garbage production. Eventually,
    there will be no surface area to expand human habitation, only 1000’s of miles of landfill and plastic liners, but i guess it’ll only take several hundred years for plastic (much from disposable packaging ect) to degrade sufficiently for us to begin farming the glorious plains of semi toxic filth. I think that it would make a great advertising campaign to replicate this scenario in cgi, maybe some one can use it to sell the new extraneous piece of metal or plastic inadequately designed to fulfil whatever desire we just made up (use it fast as these are intentionally designed to break/deteriorate rapidly, can’t undercut your own product) also may (probably) cause any number of medical complications or long term genetic mutation. Capitalism, sell it with a smile 🙂

  2. Katja, I agree that if we are able to continue to ephemeralize the market it will ultimately relieve a great deal of the strain on our ecosystems.

    However your logic seems a little messy to me in suggesting that money spent on champagne/status is more ecologically sound than money spend on soda pop…status, just to use your example, is something that by definition only a minority can authentically possess. The more people drinking Cristal, the less of a status symbol it becomes. It can never dominate the marketshare.

    The larger problem, which you touch on but dismiss as significant without any argument, is an intentional conflation by advertisers of material and immaterial desires. Spiritual satisfaction sold to us with a halo around a hamburger defines the banality of evil and exemplifies a seemingly ecocidal tendency in pop culture’s commodification of unquantifiable experiences.

    Perhaps a better example would be the sales of software…but even then, software lives within the ecology of high technology, which relies on low technology, and as Kevin Kelly and others have eloquently reminded us, our excitement about “demassification” is largely an illusion based on our focus on the quickest and newest things, rather than the increasingly extensive infrastructure upon which they rely.

    Maybe all of this will be made irrelevant with zero-waste recycling technologies in the years to come. Maybe not.

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