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17 Dec 2013

Adam Corner on the "adverts that want to be your friend"

Ghastly Asda Christmas ad

We’re all far too sensible to be influenced by advertising, right?  For sure, all of the choices we made while doing our Christmas shopping this year were entirely rational, not possibly swayed by distant marketers, right?  Wrong.  Probably.  A recent article by Adam Corner in Aeon magazine, called Ad nauseam: The more we hate it, the more it agrees with us. How advertising turned anti-consumerism into a secret weapon got me thinking aboutthe impacts advertisting has on us, and what it all means to our relationship with “stuff”.   So I gave him a call. 

Adam is a research associate in the school of psychology at Cardiff University, and also works for the Climate Outreach and Information Network.  In the context of our month’s theme and reflections on why we continue to consume it with such voracity, his article offered a very illuminating perspective.  He writes:

“The industry’s seemingly endless capacity to perpetuate itself matters. Marketing is not simply a mirror of our prevailing aspirations. It systematically promotes and presents a specific cluster of values that undermine pro-social and pro-environmental attitudes and behaviour. In other words, the more that we’re encouraged to obsess about the latest phone upgrade, the less likely we are to concern ourselves with society’s more pressing problems. That’s a reason to want to keep a careful tab on advertising’s elusive and ephemeral forms”.

The core argument of the piece is that marketing has developed an approach of pretending to empathise with our frustrations with marketing, and then uses that sense of empathy to sell us more things.  I talked to Adam to find out more.  He started by telling me where this insight had come from:

“I was listening to the radio one day and an advert for Kopparberg Cider came on, and it was basically lamenting the fact that you “couldn’t get plain old apple cider these days, where have all those apple ciders gone, you used to be able to get good old apple ciders didn’t you?”  If there’s anyone who’s done the most to widen out the categories of ciders into all sorts of fruity flavours it’s probably them.  Yet they’re using the fact that they flooded the market with fruity ciders to re-introduce the idea of what they call “naked apple cider”.  I couldn’t decide whether I was impressed with the complete blatantness of it, or appalled by it.  Probably a bit of both, but mainly the latter”. 

Cider range

It led to his thinking that there is now, as he put it:

“a category of advert that wants to put its arm around your shoulder, and sympathise with you, or empathise with you against some kind of problem out there in the world.  Often a problem that actually has been caused by the previous activities of either that brand or that company, or other brands.  It then uses that connection and that sense of personal identity to say “well why don’t you buy this other product instead, wink wink, nudge nudge”.  It’s adverts that want to be your friend.  What that does is completely take the sting out of any sense of cynicism, or any sense that maybe you don’t trust these companies, or even anything as dissenting as just not buying their things in the first place, because they’re siding with you against the big bad evil world that’s out there, and just using that empathy to try and make you buy different stuff instead”. 

None of us believe advertising has any impact on our shopping decisions at all, yet billions of pounds are spent on it every year.  We all believe we are immune, yet clearly we’re not.  Advertising no longer works in the sense that you see an advert for baked beans and then 3 weeks later your kitchen cupboards are full of them.  


It’s more, according to Adam, that advertising provides “the background buzz and hum that’s just there, accompanying everything that we do”.  In terms of those Christmas shopping choices, I asked Adam whether he could ever be sure that his shopping choices this year haven’t been influenced by advertising?

I think you can be sure they they have almost definitely been influenced by the power of advertising somehow!  Everyone markets and advertises.  Even if we were all to buy each other ethically sourced items and products, they’ve often been promoted through exactly the same routes.

As we’ve become more aware of when someone is making a pitch at us, marketers have had to become more creative, and adverts have become more opaque, more indirect, trying to build a personal rapport, a connection, between us and the advert.  As Adam puts it:

It could be things like personalised adverts that try to stoke that idea that there’s some sort of connection between you and the advert.  Whether it’s word-matching on internet adverts where they know what you’re searching for and they promote to you that way, which is more of a relatively recent phenomenon, or the idea of adverts trying to empathise with you against the big bad corporate advertising world out there and saying “yeah we know, we’re your friends, we understand that you’re cynical about the world.  We understand that you’re cynical about advertising, we get that.  We want to share with you that we get that.  But at the same time we’re selling this thing that operates outside those terms of reference, so maybe you’d like to buy it, safe in the knowledge that you can be cynical and buying our products at the same time”.  

What intrigues me is whether, in a world where action on climate change is needed desperately, yet the fierce consumerism that drives climate change is relentlessly promote through an increasingly skillful advertising industry, it is ever possible that we could avert climate change with the advertising industry operating in the way it does today?

Adam Corner.

Adam told me:

I don’t think so.  I think that for as long as the advertising industry is there telling people what they need to do and what they want to do and what other people who they look up to crucially are doing and are living like, and as long as they are projecting a world to people that is all about very unsustainable, high carbon living, it’s difficult to see how that would be congruent with tackling climate change.  .

Part of the reason for that is around values, and the unspoken values that advertising communicates.   

Advertising is actually founded on quite a small cluster of values, things like materialism, and not things like collective social decision-making, concern for the environment, things that might have more pro-social outcomes attached to them.  It’s this kind of background buzz I think of messages and ideas that tell us that the world is a certain way.  They project a certain image of the world to each other, to all of us, so that even if perhaps we think we’re not completely self-interested, we get the very strong message that everyone else is, because why else would there be adverts for the glitziest watch or the snazziest car, it just sets the tone all the thinking that’s done on top of it. 

So we could just ban it right?  It’s not unheard of.  Campaigners in Bristol have already launched a petition to ban advertisers outdoors, under the banner of ‘Bristol: the city that said no to advertising‘.  In the US, the states of Maine, Alaska, Hawaii and Vermont have all put restrictions in places, as have 1,500 other towns across the US.


Paris recently reduced outdoor advertising by 30% and banned any advertising within 50 metres of schools.  São Paulo in Brazil has banned all advertising in public places.  But if we lived in an advertising-free city, I wondered, would we find that we’ve actually lost anything?  The benefits would be great, as Neal Lawson wrote in The Guardian last year:

A ban would be aesthetically, culturally and environmentally right. But it’s what it says about us that matters too. It would be a sign of collective and democratic power over the market. It would be a signal that says the public interest trumps private interest. That the freedom to be fully human, and not just be subjected to an endless onslaught of adverts, should come first. That we are citizens more than we are consumers.

For Adam, in spite of thinking that a ban on advertising would mean that “we’d probably gain a bit of mental space”, he feels it would be a huge leap, and probably impossible too.  A better place to start, he argues, is with a ban on advertising for children, which he describes as “especially morally questionable”.  

Most parents, even if not inclined to see advertising as detrimental to themselves, most would quite quickly agree that it might be nicer if kids weren’t constantly having their arms twisted to by X, Y and Z.  If for no other reason it’s ends up being the parents who have to go and buy the stuff anyway!  There isn’t really much of a debate about it.  It’s one of those debates where if only it would be talked about, I don’t think it would be that radical, but it isn’t really talked about, and like all things that are very ubiquitous, it just drifts along in the background being nice and invisible. 

But given the power that advertising clearly has, and the skills and tools that marketers have at their fingertips, rather than binning the whole thing, should we not just learn how to harvest those tool and use them to market the idea that people consume less, become more mindful about climate change, and get involved with things like Transition?  Adam thinks not:

“If you adopt these techniques and try and do work that you think would be really socially beneficial, there’s going to be a risk that actually you are barking up the wrong tree, going in the wrong direction.  I have written before about the perils of what’s called “social marketing” to engage people on issues like CC.  There’s been a big push over the last few decades around promoting positive health behaviours like giving up smoking, and anti-obesity campaigns. There is, to be sure, evidence that social marketing does work, on limited small specific behaviours, but when you apply it to something like climate change where the challenge isn’t just a set of separate discreet behaviours that people can be nudged into doing differently. 

When you’ve really got to engage with the underlying rationale and principle of what climate change means, or even broadly sustainability means, it doesn’t seem right that you can ‘sell’ the idea of CC to people in the same way that you could sell soap or dog food.  It’s just not that kind of issue.  There has definitely been a tendency among governments, and some of the bigger NGOs to reach for marketing people and advertisers to ask them for help with talking to people about climate change.  I think it’s wrong-headed, because the principles of selling physical stuff are not the same as the principles of engaging people more deeply in the act of thinking about the challenge of climate change.  It’s just not the same thing. 

WWF poster

Surely in times of austerity we would see advertising having less of an impact as budgets tighten and people have less disposable income?  Adam mentioned a trend he has identified on local radio stations recently: 

A huge amount of the advertising is focused on the idea that most people don’t like their jobs and are not very happy in their jobs, they are doing it just to get the money to get to the end of the week.  That everyone is in tough times which clearly many people are,  that everyone can’t wait until Friday to clock off from their jobs and by the way, this holiday here or this new product should alleviate that.  It seems to me the most cynical response to the terrible impacts of austerity and a really inequitable society is that underneath all of that advertising pops up and tries to put its arm around your shoulder.  

It says “we know you hate your job, we know you don’t want to do what you’ve been doing, we know you don’t earn enough money”, and then tries to whisk that away with the promoting of a set of products that you are never going to quite have the set of products that you are completely happy with.  It’s actively stoking that sense of dissatisfaction at the same time as trying to offer a false solution to it, and I think it’s very cynical.


If you’d like to hear the audio of our discussion, here is the audio that you can either download as a podcast or listen to here: