Fight for your right to be ad-free 

Nicola Round from Adfree Cities explains the cost of corporate advertising and how we can tackle it in our communities. 

Adverts have a lot to answer for. 

Irresponsible food marketing denies children the right to health, as well as encouraging tonnes of food waste every year. Roadside billboards sell new cars to drivers stuck in traffic jams, while people living nearby endure lethal levels of air pollution and we all feel the heat from climate change caused by carbon emissions. Misleading advertising by fossil fuel companies promoting their ‘green’ credentials prevents us from understanding their real and dangerous impact on the environment.

And the increasing commercialisation of public spaces, with intrusive digital billboards and bus shelter advertising, turns us into passive consumers of corporate messages rather than active participants and engaged citizens. 

Yet globally, we spend more money on advertising than alleviating hunger and poverty every year. In 2020, advertisers globally spent $557.3 billion, largely promoting consumption.⁠ This is 14 times the $40 billion that the UN said was needed in 2020 in global humanitarian assistance (while the actual amount given was far less than this, at $30.9 billion).

How can we begin to address such a colossal imbalance?

The problem with advertising

Advertising exists to make us buy something - often something we don’t need. Big brand adverts - especially the kind we see all around our cities on huge unavoidable billboards and digital screens - appeal to our insecurities, our need to fit in and be accepted, to persuade us that this new car, that fizzy drink or those new trainers will make us happy, fulfilled and worthy. 

By making us feel inadequate and encouraging us to seek fulfilment through spending - which will only ever be short lived - advertising makes us unhappy.

In fact it depends on our unhappiness so that we remain the ideal consumers, always needing another retail fix to achieve that impossible billboard-perfect lifestyle. Research shows that people with more materialistic values are less satisfied, less energetic and more anxious.

Contemporary advertising is not concerned with giving us information about a product so that we can make an informed, conscious decision.

Advertising is designed to manipulate us at a subconscious level, playing on our desires and creating an emotional link with a product. 

With the deeply concerning practice of neuromarketing, brands like McDonald’s, Pepsi and Kraft are going further, employing neuroscience techniques that use brain imaging to identify unconscious states that influence consumer behaviour. By measuring responses to marketing in the unconscious mind, advertisers can adjust their campaigns to trigger responses, leading us to make impulsive decisions

In the case of billboards, especially the increasing number of huge digital advertising screens in our cities, this advertising is simply impossible to ignore. Not only are we unable to stop looking at the adverts, we are also unable to avoid being influenced by them.

Research shows that we don’t even have to be paying attention to an advert in order to be influenced by it.

Far from helping us make choices, corporate advertising is actually removing our freedom of choice, as well as undermining our wellbeing.

Billboard of fashion brand I Saw it First
I Saw it First digital advert, Bristol. Image courtesy of Adfree Cities

Violating human rights

What happens when advertisers install a billboard poster idolising a skinny waist and perfect skin in order to sell clothes made in sweatshops for poverty wages? 

For the sake of short-term profit, adverts are violating not only the rights of the girls whose mental health suffers as they feel pressured into conforming to this impossible ideal of beauty, but also the rights of the women whose labour is exploited to produce these clothes. They are violating our right to a sustainable environment, which is being ravaged by our addiction to shopping, fuelled by the rapacious advertising industry.

A new report At What Cost?, written by Elizabeth Harrop for Adfree Cities, looks at the multiple ways in which advertising and consumerism are violating our human rights and damaging the environment. 

It found that “multiple articles in human rights treaties provide protection to children and adults against the harms from advertising”, and that “the advertising and marketing industries have a responsibility to market ethical choices, or to withdraw from marketing unethical goods, i.e., those which have potentially devastating implications for human health as well as the environment and other rights. Meanwhile governments have a responsibility to uphold their commitments to international human rights law.

Case Study: Fast fashion

The fashion industry spends over £280 million on advertising every year in the UK alone. Billboard adverts for fast fashion brands like Boohoo, I Saw It First and Pretty Little Thing encourage us to stay on top of the latest fashion trends.

Instead of the traditional two seasons each year, this now means 52 ‘micro-seasons’, resulting in unsustainable demands on the workers who produce our clothes, and driving down the prices paid to garment factories and inevitably, their workers’ wages.

The social and environmental costs of the fast fashion industry are well known - from enforcing insecure jobs and unsafe conditions for women sweatshop workers, and failing to pay workers a living wage, to emitting between 3 and 10% of the world’s total carbon emissions. According to a 2019 report from the UK Government’s Environmental Audit Committee,

“Our desire for fast fashion, fuelled by advertising, social media and a supply of cheap garments, means we are disposing of over a million tonnes of clothes every year in the UK.” 

Advertising has played a crucial role in creating the fast fashion industry, playing on negative body ideals and social demands.

Billboard with positive message about wellbeing and community
Artwork by Lucus Antics on community arts board in Bristol. Copyright Adblock Bristol

Signs of progress

In 2020 ClientEarth took action against BP for their ad campaign which focused on ‘clean’ energy, when in fact 96% of BP’s annual spend is on oil and gas. The OECD judged the claim to be substantiated, although no further action was taken as BP withdrew the campaign.

Local councils in the UK are also taking action against harmful advertising. Transport for London introduced a ban on junk food advertising across the London transport network in 2019. This year Bristol City Council has announced a new policy to restrict advertising for junk food, alcohol, gambling and payday loans. Other councils are set to go further, with Liverpool, Norwich and North Somerset Councils moving towards restricting advertising for ‘high carbon’ products that are driving climate change. 

As Harrop shows in AdFree Cities' new report, if we view consumerism within the framework of human rights we will find more opportunities to challenge its harms through existing agreements that are designed to protect those rights.

For example, Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 12 on Responsible Production and Consumption commits all UN member states by 2030 to ‘halve per capita global food waste at the retail and consumer levels’ and to ‘substantially reduce waste generation through prevention, reduction, recycling and reuse’. 

Let’s reach out to local councils and other organisations who are measuring their performance against the SDGs. By adopting restrictions on advertising they can address its role in undermining progress towards these goals.

How to fight for your right to be ad-free

Groups around the UK are fighting back against corporate advertising in public places, empowering communities to voice their concerns and reimagine these spaces with creative, community-led alternatives.

Adfree Cities is a network of UK groups concerned about the impacts of corporate advertising on our health, wellbeing, environment, climate, communities and the local economy. 

Adblock Bristol launched in 2017 and there are now Adblock groups in Birmingham, Cardiff, Lambeth, Leeds and Norwich too. By working with residents and community groups, these groups have prevented dozens of huge digital billboards, keeping unwelcome corporate ads out of their neighbourhoods. They have successfully lobbied councils to make progress on restricting harmful advertising. And they are showcasing alternatives to corporate advertising in public places with projects like the Burg Arts community arts board in St Werburghs, Bristol. 

There are many things you can do to stop harmful advertising and start creating happier, less stressed-out neighbourhoods free from corporate ads: