Ads Are Polluting Our World: How Advertising Trashes Our Planet and Our Brains


People often discuss the potentially harmful effects that violence and sex, featured in television or video games, could do to a young child during his or her formative years. But what are the harmful effects of being told 19 times per day to buy new shoes? People learn to design their identities with their purchased goods. How cool and individual is someone with the same iPhone, Levi’s jeans, Louis Vuitton handbag, Nike sneakers and Starbucks coffee cup that every other member of the society also owns?

People living in Western culture are blasted with advertisements and slogans constantly. We hear commercials on radio and television at regular intervals. Ads stare back at us from billboards, buses, taxis, cars, flyers, posters, benches and even hang from the stall doors of public restrooms. Commercials encircle nearly every page on the internet. Logos reflect off of people’s outfits throughout the day. The organization Commercial Free Childhood notes that children 2 two to 11-years old see more than 25,000 advertisements per year on television alone. Most of these ads are focused on one thing: getting us to buy their products.

Spending on advertising has increased steadily for the past 30 years. Juliet Schor points out that the advertising industry spent $100 million on marketing to children in 1983, but was spending $15 billion on ads aimed at kids by the year 2004. Children are a prime target because they can have a large impact on the spending habits of their parents. Certain cases, like diapers with Disney characters, begin the branding process before consciousness is entirely developed.  In his book Youth in a Suspect Society: Democracy or Disposability, author Henry Giroux argues:

“Marketing concepts such as ‘cool’ operate off the assumption that social relations work primarily as a site of intense competition, pitting youngsters who are trendy against those who cannot keep up with an ever-changing economy of objects and fashions, undergoing as a first principle instant obsolescence. Kids are under intense pressure to keep up with trends, learning quickly that under the regime of market sovereignty their value, if not their dignity and identity, rests on what they accumulate rather than who they are”

In her book No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies, author Naomi Klein describes two models used by companies during the age of globalization to free up extra revenues for additional advertising money. The Nike Model is to “close your factories, produce your products through an intricate web of contractors and subcontractors and pour your resources into the design and marketing required to project your big idea.” There is also the Microsoft Model, where a company will “maintain a tight control center of shareholders/employees who perform the company’s ‘core competency’ and outsource everything else to temps, from running the mailroom to writing code.”

new study by Ad Age has described the end of mass affluence in the U.S. and describes how the top 10% of American households “account for almost half of the consumer spending.” The company’s blog continues, “Simply put, a small plutocracy of wealthy elites drives a larger and larger share of total consumer spending and has outsize purchasing influence — particularly in categories such as technology, financial services, travel, automotive, apparel and personal care.”

Detournement was Situationist International leader Guy Debord’s idea of “turning around” an object, idea or space by taking it out of its original context and placing it elsewhere, which would give it a new meaning. For example Debord’s book Memoires was bound in thick sandpaper so that it would damage any other books placed near it on a shelf. This spirit is alive and well in the practice of culture-jamming and adbusting, which is the creation of spoof ads and vandalizing billboards in order to alter their meaning.

“Isn’t it obvious that a corporate slogan is nothing but glorified, commercialized speech?” asks Micah White of Adbusters magazine. Culture jammers believe that marketing campaigns purchase their way onto public property and pollute the “mental environment” of the population. And because most citizens cannot realistically afford to pay for billboards to counter corporate advertisements with their own messages, people should take it upon themselves to respond to images that no one ever asked to see.

Messing with a company’s logo can ruin a multimillion dollar ad campaign if the parody ad exposes a shady truth that the company must suddenly scramble to cover or hide. Or the company will at least have to pay to fix its billboard.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg described how “people influence people” on social media platforms. People market to their social network friends as viral tactics smoothly entwine brand names and commercial messages into their communications. People receive a commercial in their status list each time a friend “likes,” becomes a “fan” or “friends” a product or company. Joel Bakan summed up this phenomenon:

“Marketing as marketing disappears within the viral networks of social media platforms. Boundaries are broken down between marketers and kids (as kids market to each other); between content and advertising (as advertising now infuses, rather than interrupts, content); and between kids’s lives and entertainment (as their lives now become the content of that entertainment).”

Adbusting focuses on issues of mental pollution, but some ads become literal pollution as well.  Billboards, flyers and posters can fall to the ground or blow off of a wall. Club promotions left on your car at school are casually tossed to the ground while you climb into your vehicle. How much energy is wasted on powering an electronic billboard reminding us to eat unhealthy fast food? What about the excess trash we accumulate that is covered in additional advertisements — when we buy something, we carry it out in a logo-covered plastic bag, are handed an extra-long receipt that is covered in ads on the bottom or back portion and the cashier may hand us additional flyers and ads about next week’s sale. We have some cleaning to do.