Many countries now ban adverts for tobacco products and some now limit sales of junk food, to protect public health. All of them have reduced advertising, or ended it outright.
So, campaigners argue, why not do the same with adverts which promote high-carbon products and lifestyles, damaging people’s health and heating the planet?
There’s growing pressure for bans like that in the United Kingdom, with a focus on ending the promotion of highly-polluting cars, gas-guzzling 4x4s, also known as SUVs, an argument developed by a campaign called Badvertising.
The Rapid Transition Alliance (RTA) is a UK-based group which argues that humankind must undertake “widespread behaviour change to sustainable lifestyles … to live within planetary ecological boundaries and to limit global warming to below 1.5°C” (the more stringent limit set by the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change).
As part of its work to publicise how projects and communities can withstand the effects of climate heating, the Alliance too is supporting Badvertising, which it is convinced can succeed.
The RTA argues that advertising bans have worked before, provided they have had three factors in their favour: strong evidence from trusted sources; clear campaigning; and a threat to public health, which policymakers take seriously.
Even so, it says, powerful moneyed interests will oppose changes that threaten their income. Advertising is one key way of driving consumption, encouraging us to “shop till we drop”. In 2020 world expenditure on advertising is expected to reach US$691.7 billion (£520bn), up by 7.0 per cent from 2019, despite the Covid-19 pandemic.
That’s more than China’s infrastructure investment programme after the 2008 financial crisis, and over four times more than the $153bn provided to developing countries in 2018 by the 30 members of the OECD’s development assistance committee.
With tobacco, once its huge public health impact became clear – 100 million people died in the last century from its use, and the figure for this century is expected to be ten times greater – campaigners had to work tirelessly for another 40 years until its promotion was banned.
The tobacco industry meanwhile resisted fiercely, arguing, for example, that adverts didn’t increase smoking but merely encouraged people to switch brands, despite evidence to the contrary. For climate and health campaigners today there are valuable lessons to be learned from the fight against tobacco, the RTA says. Both tobacco smoke and car exhausts contain similar toxins that directly threaten human health.
Underlying health conditions mean that poorer households are worse hit than richer ones by the effects of tobacco and air pollution from vehicles, and so are more vulnerable too to health crises like Covid-19.
Junk food is another target for campaigners against advertising, particularly where child obesity is an issue. In London a ban on unhealthy food advertising was introduced in 2018, to widespread public approval. The UK government is now set to implement stricter rules on how junk food is advertised and sold across the country.
This year the Mexican state of Oaxaca banned the sale of sugary drinks and high-calorie snack foods to children. Mexicans drink 163 litres of soft drinks a year per head – the world’s highest level – and they start young. About 73 per cent of Mexicans are considered overweight, and related diseases such as diabetes are rife.
A survey by El Poder del Consumidor (in Spanish) – a Mexican consumer advocacy group and drinks industry critic – found 70 per cent of schoolchildren in a poor region of Guerrero state reported having soft drinks for breakfast. “When you go to these communities, what you find is junk food. There’s no access to clean drinking water,” said Alejandro Calvillo, the group’s director.
In 2006 a US district judge ruled that tobacco companies had “devised and executed a scheme to defraud consumers … about the hazards of cigarettes, hazards that their own internal company documents proved they had known about since the 1950s.” After four decades of delay, obfuscation and the spreading of doubt by the industry, the tobacco companies were found guilty.
In the UK the first calls to restrict advertising came in 1962 from the Royal College of Physicians. The general advertising of tobacco products was banned in stages from 2003. But concern at the damage that advertising can cause continues.
Communities in the UK city of Bristol recently acted against the bright LCD billboards which have proliferated there, causing light pollution and using huge amounts of energy to adverise a range of goods and services. A Bristol initiative to help residents object to planning applications for new digital advertising screens has now led to a wider network, Adfree Cities.
Advertising is part of the broader public relations industry. The RTA quotes an American citizen, often called the father of public relations, Edward Bernays, who worked for the US Committee on Public Information, a body for official propaganda during the first world war.
Bernays once wrote: “Those who manipulate the unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power. We are governed, our minds moulded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested largely by men we have never heard of.”
Doctors’ crucial intervention
One turning point in the battle against tobacco industry propaganda in the UK, the RTA says, was the involvement of the doctors’ trades union, the British Medical Association (BMA). This brought the people the public trusted most – their family doctors – into direct confrontation with the tobacco industry.
But the medical profession was to play another crucial part in protecting public health on a far wider front in 2017, when an article in the Lancet, the leading British medical journal, featured a major study, this time with evidence supporting the climatologists’ findings that climate change is a growing health hazard.
In response, Simon Dalby of Wilfrid Laurier University in Canada asks why we don’t use advertising restrictions for climate change in the same way that we have with other public health hazards like smoking.
Hundreds of millions of people around the world are already suffering because of climate change, he points out. Infectious diseases are spreading faster as the climate heats, hunger and malnutrition are worsening, allergy seasons are getting longer, and sometimes it’s simply too hot for farmers to tend their crops.
Professor Dalby’s suggestion? Not only should we restrict adverts for gas-guzzlers. We should treat climate change itself, not as an environmental problem, but as a health emergency.
This story was published with permission from Climate News Network.
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