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Why the Ad industry is an Unlikely Participant in Climate Change


Many industries have rightfully been recognized as sources of climate change. Oil drilling, farming, and manufacturing have been justly scrutinized and targeted for their role in harming our environment and hastening its devastating effects. However, the causes of such a wide-ranging catastrophe go far deeper than just a handful of industries. Since the industrial revolution, much of society has been built around the exploitation of the environment and its natural resources – directly or not.


The advertising industry is one that has largely escaped the criticism of others. This is understandable, as it does not directly contribute to carbon emissions, nor does it directly dump pollutants into the environment. Nevertheless, advertising has played a distinct role in the burgeoning climate crisis – albeit a role hidden from public scrutiny. A report from Tim Kasser, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Knox College, sought to uncover and quantify this relationship.


In his paper, Dr. Kasser references multiple studies that support the hypothesis that “exposure to advertising heightens the priority people place on materialistic values and goals”, and that materialism is directly associated with “negative ecological attitudes and unsustainable behaviors”. So, whether or not it’s convincing you to buy a new SUV or take a flight to Hawaii, constant exposure to messaging that’s designed to get us to consume more is everywhere in our consumer society – and that means more waste and more environmentally unsustainable habits. While many people see the ad industry as a neutral party following the whims of polluting manufacturers and organizations, Dr. Kasser emphasizes that “there is a large and growing body of scientific evidence consistent with the conclusion that advertising indirectly causes climate and ecological degradation” through the encouragement of materialistic and consumerist values and goals.


A much more insidious and direct way the industry harms the environment is by supporting and enabling the fossil fuel industry’s efforts to manipulate environmental discourse and influence political outcomes around climate change. A study from professor Robert Brulle of Brown University, analyzing the links between fossil fuel companies’ ad spending and outside factors such as environmental disasters, found that media coverage and congressional attention on climate change spurred the largest increase in ad spending. This increase is a direct result of their strategy to manage risk and distract public anger in times of scrutiny after an environmental crisis. The ad and marketing agencies in charge of these public relations campaigns are directly responsible for these companies oftentimes escaping governmental and public ire with little to no repercussions.


A wholesale and thorough examination of the advertising industry must take place before more harm is done to the environment. For too long, the role ad and marketing agencies have had on the climate has been overlooked and ignored. If humanity is to be truly successful in staving off the worst effects of climate change, no party responsible can continue to function as before. Marketing and advertising hold great power and sway over what people say, do, and think. Instead of continuing to help those who are responsible for the disaster unfolding in our time, the industry must choose to support companies, organizations, and industries whose activities can play a part in changing the tide.

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