Affluenza author asks if it's possible to be an ethical marketer

LONDON - The UK is brimming with Affluenza-afflicted consumers ripe for marketers to play on their ubiquitous desire to constantly compare themselves negatively with others, writes psychologist Oliver James. So is it possible to be an ethical marketer?

In the world of consumerism, marketing is there to promote consumption. But as green issues rise up the agenda, how does marketing fit in? Is it inevitable that marketing will promote over-consumption, and from this, a psychologically, as well as ecologically, unsustainable world? In theory, there should be ways to market responsibly. But in practice, there are powerful forces built into the neoliberal 'selfish capitalist' system that make it almost unavoidable. So, is ethical marketing possible?

These forces have had a physical effect on many consumers. There is a 'sickness' caused by materialism - the 'Affluenza' virus. It leads sufferers to place too high a value on money, possessions, appearances (physical and social) and fame. As a result of this illness they are more likely to suffer from depression, anxiety, substance abuse and personality disorder. English-speaking nations are more Affluenza-stricken, and have rates of mental illness twice as high as nations in mainland Western Europe. It's a staggering fact that, on average, 23% of citizens in these countries (UK, US, Australia, New Zealand and Canada) have had a mental illness in the past 12 months, compared with exactly half as many (11.5%) mainland Western Europeans.

Forget genes as the main cause of mental illness: it's Thatcherism and Blairism. The underlying cause of these differences in prevalence is political economy. We have been plagued for 35 years by 'selfish capitalism', defined as a system that makes short-term share price the main definition of corporate success, that deregulates business (combined with heavy regulation of labour), and privatises anything that moves. It is driven by the conviction that the market can meet nearly all human needs. And a significant part of this system is its reliance on marketing to maintain interest in consumer society.

Since the 60s, the US has spent four times as much of its GDP per capita on advertising as mainland Western European nations. The other English-speaking nations have spent twice as much. Such a high spend reflects the different economic and social systems in those countries. The culture these conditions have created is a major contributory factor to the hugely greater prevalence of mental illness in the English-speaking world.

Marketing folk tend to nod their heads at this point but they do not always realise quite how extensive the evidence is nor quite how explicit selfish capitalism is about its goal of fostering discontent and mental illness. It goes back to Vance Packard, US author of The Hidden Persuaders (1957). Through interviews with marketing and advertising executives in the mid-50s, he revealed how, after World War II, US business had shifted its emphasis from production to marketing.

He quotes an executive who summarised the rationale: 'As a nation we are already so rich that consumers are under no pressure of immediate necessity to buy a very large share - as much as 40% - of what is produced, and the pressure will get progressively less in the years ahead. But if consumers exercise their option not to buy a large share of what is produced, a great [economic] depression is not far behind.'

David Ogilvy, the UK executive known as 'the father of advertising', described another problem: 'There really isn't any significant difference between the various brands of whisky or the various cigarettes. They are all about the same. And so are the cake mixes and the detergents and the automobiles.'

He believed that people no longer bought soap to make them clean, they bought the promise that it would make them beautiful. In the virtual world of ads, toothpaste was not to kill bacteria but to create white teeth, cars were for prestige rather than travel, even foodstuffs such as oranges were for vitality, not nutrition. Needs were replaced by confected wants that people did not know they had. Packard quoted one ad executive as saying: 'What makes [the US] great is the creation of wants and desires, the creation of dissatisfaction with the old and outmoded.' That idea persisted: in 1989, Nancy Shalek of the Shalek Agency told the Los Angeles Times: 'Advertising at its best is making people feel that without their product, you're a loser... You open up emotional vulnerabilities.'

That advertising unashamedly fosters unhappiness with oneself and one's possessions is now blithely taken for granted by most of us. Yet remarkably few people are aware of the hard evidence of the harm it does to our mental state, or, by extension, to our environment.

Consider television. The Affluenza-stricken watch more TV, and heavy watchers are more likely to be dissatisfied with their lives than light ones. Asked to compare their lives with those of television characters, they are more negative about the contrast. Relentless exposure to images of wealth and beauty spill over and poison their lives beyond the sitting-room. Since programmes are saturated with exceptionally attractive people living abnormally opulent lives, expectations of what is 'normal' are raised. And every few minutes come the advertisements, one of the main objectives of which is to create a sense of dissatisfaction among consumers with their possessions so that they will want to buy new, 'better' ones. In this they succeed, since heavy viewers are particularly at risk of developing a permanent sense of inadequacy, more so if they judge themselves by what they own, which they are more likely to do if they are the sort of person that watches a lot of TV.

Depressed people make more social comparisons. Lacking self-esteem and confidence in their own adequacy, they spend more time checking out how they are doing relative to others. Even worse, they do so in more maladaptive ways: they choose hopelessly unrealistic upward comparison targets and attributes and fail to discount the difference by making allowances for things such as the amount of time spent practising, coaching from an early age, ability, and so forth.

An average golfer, for example, can admire Tiger Woods without feeling belittled by his excellence and may be able to learn from watching him. A depressed golfer is liable to moan that they will never be able to play as well as him, a ridiculous upward comparison which leaves out all the reasons why they aren't as good as Woods. Likewise, there will be needless suffering for a woman who compares her looks directly with Kate Moss, or for schoolchildren who compare their own school performance only with that of the best pupils.

A tendency toward upward social comparison is a defining feature of Affluenza psychology. Inevitably, someone for whom money, possessions, fame and appearances are core values will show a keen interest in others with superior levels of these, influencing the sort of magazines they read and the TV programmes they watch.

By contrast, those who make horizontal comparisons with people like themselves also tend to be community-minded and Affluenza virus-free. This is important, because not only do the virus-stricken do more upward comparing, they are also more likely to select people to compare with who live vastly more opulent lives. The virus-free put themselves alongside others of equivalent income and affluence; the virus-stricken seek to emulate inhabitants of another universe.

Constant exposure to desirable people creates what is known as a contrast effect: you start judging normal people against the attractive ones. A clever proof of this was a study of the rates of divorce among male US teachers at secondary schools and universities, which proved to be higher than among men teaching in primary schools or kindergartens. Coming into daily contact with women at their most nubile and attractive was causing them to find their wives less desirable. In the same way, males afflicted by Affluenza are that much more likely to watch large amounts of TV containing sexy women, setting up a contrast that is unfavourable to their wife or girlfriend.

The impact of attractive media images of women on the prevalence of eating disorders has also been proved. An analysis of 25 different studies demonstrates that this is particularly so for girls under 19, whose family histories make them already vulnerable. A particularly telling study was done in Fiji. Before 1995 TV was not available there, and a full female figure was the preferred cultural form. In that year no cases of self-induced vomiting (bulimia) were recorded, but within three years of the introduction of TV, 11% of young women were bulimic. Bulimia was three times commoner among girls living in homes with television than in ones without. In the general population, dieting increased rapidly.

Almost everything on television contributes to mental illness; both the stuff between the advertising and the ads themselves. Against this background, can marketing really make a difference? In practice there are profound processes in place that make it hard to achieve. The phenomenon of Affluenza, bolstered by the media and marketing industries, encourages us to keep consuming.

When speaking to marketing professionals, I have proposed that they try to persuade clients to go back to basics. Nearly all current advertising seeks to confect wants rather than to encourage us to meet real fundamental needs. Most psychologists will sign up to only four such needs: for emotional and material security; for community, (a network of intimates); for a sense of effectiveness (something English-speaking schools and workplaces are particularly skilled at diminishing); and for autonomy and authenticity (again, the opposites of which we are brilliant at creating).

Using these criteria, there are some categories of product that could never be sold as needed, such as nearly all cosmetics and much fashion. But for many, that is not the case - the real need for toothpaste to kill bacteria or for dishwasher liquid to clean plates is undeniable. Indeed, research in emerging economies such as Russia and China shows that advertisers are still at the stage of relying on real needs for their pitch. The problem is that we are in the post-Packard, selfish capitalist world, and most clients would laugh in an agency's face if it started proposing real need as the criterion for selecting messages. While a few might see it as a potential gimmick ('Oh yeah, authenticity as a pitch - might work'), the need to distinguish this toothpaste from that one would require that it is positioned as likely to make the consumer's husband love them more or the milkman want to have sex with them.

Neither the retailers nor the marketers are especially to blame for all this. The problem is structural. In Denmark, luxury-goods retailers have long given up trying to introduce the latest invention at all until it reaches a price point at which nearly everyone can afford it. In a nation where Affluenza-style conspicuous consumption is despised, it is simply not possible to persuade Danes to pay to mark themselves out from their peers. This is because they have been unselfish capitalists for 60 years, despite being a hugely successful economy.

Until we get leading politicians in the English-speaking world who explicitly reject selfish capitalism and implement the appropriate policies for at least a generation, it will be quite impossible to market ethically. The commercial and cultural environment simply will not stand for it.

The industry responds...

Kevin Peake Head of customer marketing, Npower

Many of Oliver James' points are undeniable, particularly that consumption is increasing at an alarming rate. As an energy company, we are only too aware of the pressure of this. But in stark contrast to Oliver's picture, Npower actually has a government commitment to get people to use less of our product.

Marketing can play a positive role in helping consumers make ethical decisions. Our mission is to help consumers be as green as they want, through provision of a menu of affordable and accessible green choices.

Oliver quotes extensively from Vance Packard's 1957 book The Hidden Persuaders, maintaining that 50 years later, nothing has changed. I disagree. There has been a seismic shift in attitudes among marketers and consumers alike. Being transparent about one's green credentials is now critical to a brand's success.

No one is denying that making brands more desirable is still a key marketing function, but it's just as important to make people think better of the brand. This cannot be achieved through a superficial application of 'greenwash'.

Matthew Anderson Group director for communications and brand marketing, Sky

For such a stern critic of marketing, Oliver James is no slouch at putting its techniques into practice. After all, what is Affluenza but a new name to promote some familiar arguments? All credit then to James for a clever piece of branding. But let's not be too quick to reach for the sackcloth and ashes.

The equation 'marketing = unhappiness' is not only simplistic, it is outdated and wrong. It relies on two false assumptions: that increasing affluence means fewer rewarding experiences; and that vulnerable consumers are prey to rapacious companies with no values other than their own short-term gain.

Consumers are smart and have never been so discerning in their wants and needs. Successful brands can't afford to merely sell an image or aspiration. They have to deliver benefits and experiences that make a difference to people.

They will also choose lasting relation-ships with brands that listen and share their values. In Sky's case, that dialogue prompted us to go carbon neutral and launch our 'Bigger picture' programme.

Don't call it ethical marketing. Just call it good business.

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