Archive for April, 2010

Excessive Advertising

April 27, 2010

(This blog first appeared in the Waterloo Region Record, Sept. 5, 2008, while I was serving on the Community Editorial Board.  Newspaper title: “We need to take action against this flood of advertising,” p. A9)

An epidemic of advertising has infected our society.  For quite some time last fall we were receiving one or two glossy brochures per week in the mail from the same telecommunications company.  Each week we also had to retrieve one or two bulky bundles of advertising in the mailbox – one of them contained 19 flyers. 

We face a barrage of advertising in the media.  Think of all the billboards that we cannot avoid as we drive into any large city.  Or the one to two page advertising spreads in our newspapers.  As I open up my Internet Explorer I have to make an effort to look past the advertising that is splattered across the entire screen. It is estimated that the average consumer is exposed to 5000 corporate messages every day.

Advertising works.  Businesses are not stupid.  They invest in all this advertising because it increases sales.  But is it morally justified?  I will grant, for the sake of argument that some advertising is acceptable.  We as consumers need to be informed about the products that are available.  I am not concerned here with simple, modest, and informative advertising.  Nor is my concern here with advertising that is obviously wrong, involving distortions of the truth, or the exploitation of vulnerable children.

My concern here is only with the phenomenon of excessive advertising.  I believe that a corporation that sends me one or two glossy brochures per week and does this for months on end is not behaving morally.  I believe there is something wrong with the bundles of advertising promotions that we get each week.  I believe that newspapers and television programs that are cluttered with advertising are creating artificial “needs” and therefore the CEOs in charge are behaving immorally. 

I would suggest that the sheer volume of advertising does something to our very identity.  This is a point made by journalist Rob Walker in a recent book, Buying In: The Secret Dialogue Between What We Buy and Who We Are.  Although few of us will admit that we are susceptible to advertising, marketing produces in us needs we never knew we had.  It transforms us from being human beings into consuming animals, or perhaps even worse, into consuming robots.

Excessive advertising is manipulative by its very nature.  Naomi Klein has identified the phenomenon of “branding” which is the ultimate aim of excessive advertising.  Corporations are trying to foster loyalty to their brand, so that we will no longer think about choosing another lesser known brand. 

We also need to ask the important question as to who pays for all this advertising.  Ultimately, it is you and I as consumers.  The production of glossy brochures, neon-lit bill-boards, telemarketing, internet clips, and ads in newspapers are not cheap.  And the costs finally are added to the price of the products that we buy.

What can we do about excessive advertising?  For one thing we need to help each other become aware of this phenomenon.  Walker argues that our susceptibility to marketing arises from our ignorance of its pervasiveness.  Once aware, we must then very deliberately refuse to patronize those businesses that do too much advertising.  We need to put up “No flyers” notices on our mail-boxes.  We need to join the Red Dot service offered by Canada Post, that tells mail-carriers that we do not want to receive flyers in our mail-boxes ( 

We need to hang up when we receive another annoying call from a telemarketer.  Here we can also use the “Do Not Contact Service” offered by the Canadian Marketing Association (  As of October 1, Canadians will be able to register on a federal “Do Not Call List,” administered by the CRTC.

But individual responses are not enough.  We need to hold our provincial and national governments responsible for their failure to protect ordinary consumers from the brainwashing techniques of the corporate world.  What is needed is government regulation that will limit the amount that any business or corporation can spend on advertising.