Recently I've heard degrowth proponents often mention how they found the whole advertising industry problematic and the topic seems to be treated as if advertisements themself were the problem. I understand their point but think that advertising per se doesn't have to lead to growth or unsustainable behaviour. Is there any discussion about this topic on a systemic level in academic literature? Do you know about any ideas?
The issue is not advertising per se, but what drives it. In a capitalist system, businesses pursue higher revenues and lower costs in order to maximize profits. Advertising is a part of this system which businesses use to entice customers to spend as much money as possible, thereby increasing revenue.
To change advertising so that it doesn't lead to unsustainable growth the motivation behind advertising must be changed.
One proposal to do just that is the Triple Bottom Line. The idea of the triple bottom line proposes expanding the single bottom line of profit, adding a bottom line for people and the planet:
- "People, the social equity bottom line:" a business must measure impact to employees (fair wages, safe work environment, etc) and the citizens of the community where it operates, or where its products are produced and used.
- "Planet, the environmental bottom line:" a business must measure and reduce environmental impact, minimize consumption of non-renewable resources, and design its products and goods to be reusable or recyclable.
- "Profit, the economic bottom line:" in addition to the standard definition of profit, a business must also measure and seek to increase the economic benefit it brings to all stake-holders, not just simply the share-holders.
The challenge of implementing a triple bottom line system is that the real motivation for pursuing these objectives needs to be translated into something that can be measured and maximized objectively -- such as the role money serves for understanding profit. Their explanation goes beyond the scope of this question, but systems to implement the other two bottom lines include health and safety codes, emissions cap and trade schemes, and corporate social responsibility requirements, among others.
Under a triple bottom line system, businesses would use advertising not only to increase their profit bottom line, but also their people and planet bottom lines.
This is a complex issue and one that's hard to address succinctly. It gets into the larger matter of media and its role and interaction with society, which is profound. This includes political and social elements going far beyond consumerism and consumption, though those are part of the dynamic.
For a short answer: advertising is not the only problem, but is a large component of a set of conflicts concerning information and media. It both directly and indirectly promotes disinformation and misinformation, opens avenues to propaganda and manipulation, and fails to promote and support high-quality content. It also has very real costs: globally advertising is a $600 billion/year industry, largely paid out of consumer spending among the world's 1 billion or so wealthy inhabitants of Europe, North America, and Japan. This works out to about $600/year per person in direct expense. On top of the indirect and negative-externality factors. Internet advertising is roughly $100 billion, or $100/yr. per person if you live in the US, Canada, EU, UK, Japan, Australia, or New Zealand. The "free" Internet is not free.
And the system itself is directly implicated in a tremendous amount of the breakdown of media, politics, and society over the past several years. Jonathan Albright, ex-Googler and now a scholar of media at the Tow Center (and its director), Columbia University in New York, "Who Hacked the Election? Ad Tech did. Through “Fake News,” Identity Resolution and Hyper-Personalization".
[S]cores of highly sophisticated technology providers — mostly US-based companies that specialize in building advanced solutions for audience “identity resolution,” content tailoring and personalization, cross-platform targeting, and A/B message testing and optimization — are running the data show behind the worst of these “fake news” sites.
(Emphasis in original.)
By way of a longer response, I'd suggest some reading, of which I've been doing a great deal. Among the starting points I'd suggest the following, in rough order.
Hamilton Holt, Commercialism and Journalism (1909) is a brief, easy, and fact-filled account of the American publishing industry, especially of newspapers and magazines, at the dawn of the 20th century. Holt was himself a publisher, of The Independent, and delivered this book as a lecture at the University of California. It gives an account of the previous 50 years or so of development in publishing, including various technologies, but putting the greatest impact on advertising. I'm not aware that this is particularly well-noted, but I find it a wonderfully concise summary of many of the issues, and a view from near the start of the current system. Holt includes this quote from an unnamed New York journalist:
There is no such thing in America as an independent press. I am paid for keeping honest opinions out of the paper I am connected with. If I should allow honest opinions to be printed in one issue of my paper, before twenty-four hours my occupation, like Othello's, would be gone. The business of a New Yourk journalist is to distort the truth, to lie outright, to pervert, to vilify, to fawn at the foot of Mammon, and to sell his country and his race for his daily bread. We are the tools or vassals of the rich men behind the scenes. Our time, our talents, our lives, our possibilities, are all the property of other men. We are intellectual prostitutes.
Jerry Mander, Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television. This is a 1970s classic that's held its value. Mander is an ad executive himself, though he took his talents to the Environmental movement, working closely with David Brower of the Sierra Club.
Adam Curtis, BBC documentarian, most especially The Century of the Self (part 1, part 2, part 3, and part 4), and Hypernormalisation. These documentaries, the first a four-part series, the second a self-contained 2h40m single session, focus on media and propaganda. The first especially on Bernays, Freud (Bernays' uncle), advertising, and propaganda. The second on Vladimir Putin.
Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media. The title itself comes from Walter Lippmann and his earlier work, Public Opinion, which is something of a guide to its manufacture, and the genesis of "modern" 20th century media. The notion of mass media as having a political economy is a critical element in answering your question. That is: media is inherently political and economic, and advertising and propaganda (or as it was rebranded, "public relations"), all the more so.
Robert W. McChesney has been continuing the exploration of media from a political-economic perspective and has an extensive bibliography. His Communication Revolution in particular discusses his own path through the field, including extensive references.
Elisabeth Eisenstein, either her book The Printing Press as an Agent of Change or the earlier (and much shorter) article that pressaged it, "Some Conjectures about the Impact of Printing on Western Society and Thought: A Preliminary Report" (more interesting than its title, I promise). Eisenstein draws heavily on, and improves greatly on the rigour of, McLuhan.
Generally: H.L. Mencken, I.F. Stone, and perhaps Walter Lippmann and John Dewey. Mencken and Stone are particularly given to shorter essays (see especially The I.F. Stone Reader and his New York Review of Books articles) which can be readily digested. Mencken's "Bayard vs. Lionheart" whilst not specifically concerning advertising largely describes the crowd-psychology inherent in mediocre or pathological social-political outcomes, and is a short and brilliant read.
Edward Bernays, especially Propaganda and Public Relations. Bernays created the field of public relations, and largely drove the popular support of "democracy" (a WWI war bonds advertising slogan) in favour of the earlier "liberty". For Stone, I cannot recommend his Day at Night interview (~1974) highly enough. 30 minutes. Bernays' New York Times obituary makes interesting reading.
Charles Mackay, Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds (1841). "[O]ften cited as the best book ever written about market psychology." Wikipedia article.
I have yet to read all of these works, though they're on my list, and I've at least reviewed most of the works and authors and am familiar with major themes.
This is also really just a starting point, though I hope it's a good one. Media isn't my field, or rather, I'd thought that, working in technology, it wasn't, but I've come to realise that (1) "information technology" is in very large part "media technology", and (2) the interactions of media systems and society, politics, economics, even culture as a whole, are beyond deep, and highly underappreciated.
The role of mass media in the spread of early-20th century Fascism is a particularly sobering story. See "Radio and the Rise of The Nazis in Prewar Germany", and recognise that you could include cinema, magnetic audio tape recording, public address systems (it's hard to address three quarters of a million people without amplification). More recently, radio has been studied in conjunction with the 1994 Rwandan genocide. These remain extant issues.
Steps that would make a difference:
A: A truth in advertising policy. Go after them hard for deceptive practices, especially 'life style' ads. (The attractive young lady does NOT come with the red convertible.) Hold them to the exact literal truth of anything said on public media.
B: Tax advertising.
C: Go back to regulating media. When I was a kid, FM stations were limited to 4 minutes of advertising per hour, and TV prime time was limited to I think 6.
Modify the school curriculum as follows:
- Teach formal logic. (All men are mortal; I am a man; therefore I am mortal...)
- Teach logical fallacies.
- Include "How to lie with graphs and stats" as part of the math curriculum.
- Include discussion of highly emotive words, and connotative differences as part of language arts.
- Teach a course in advertising and propaganda.
- Teach the asking of questions: "Who benefits from this stance? Who paid for this research? Where did the money come from, where did it go?
The idea here is that if kids learn from the time they enter junior high how the media is attempting to manipulate them, they will have higher resistance.