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?

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    A key point is advertising has a huge cost. This cost is sustained by consumers, who have to work more, drive more vehicles and use more resources to get money and buy stuff.
    – J. Chomel
    Nov 23, 2017 at 9:13
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    There is different approaches to advertising as well as different types and avenues of advertising. At a minimum level advertising is necessary because if other people don't know about the product or service (in a very general sense) then they will either continue without out what might be something helpful or valuable or they will spend the time to reinvent the product or service. So advertising should not be looked at as "the problem" however there is certainly advertising that is problematic (looking at you pharma industry with pill pushing adverts directly to consumers). Nov 24, 2017 at 15:48
  • It might be interesting to review the literature related to cigarette usage/ smoking and drinking. At least in the USA both advertising sectors were regulated and anti-smoking and drinking adds were promoted. It had the desired effect.
    – Hpeer
    Sep 19, 2019 at 21:19

3 Answers 3


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.

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.

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