Times Square and Piccadilly Circus without their famous lights? Newspapers and magazines a fraction of their current thickness? Fifty minute television programmes over in … fifty minutes?!
Modern life would be very different without advertising. Is it the sort of life we'd want to live? Could it be achieved?
Banning advertising should not be ruled out, though such a path would not be easy. Any politician wanting to ban advertising would find herself up against powerful lobbies. She may even be told her idea is in breach of one interpretation of her country's hallowed constitution. Advertising, after all, can be interpreted as free speech, and advertisers regarded as humans, legally speaking. Still, unless we want to live in necrocracies we should ensure constitutions written by dead folk can be rewritten by the living: change is in the hands of the people.
And there is a precedent of sorts. In São Paulo, one of the world's ten largest cities, billboard advertising has been banned. Advertisers fought the ban, of course, and tried to frighten people into thinking it would have dire consequences. In the event, however, it proved popular with citizens who now telephone the mayor to report any breaches.
So what does advertising do that's so bad we'd want to ban it? And what does it cost us?
Advertisers tell us they provide us with information and it's hard to argue with that. It is, however, often information we don't want or need: I don't suffer from 'restless leg syndrome', but I still have to sit restlessly through the commercial offering a remedy. It is also incomplete information: company X will tell me how good their product is, but will omit the fact that company Y's product is even better. Sometimes, of course, it is wrong information, although in countries where tough regulations are enforced this should be rare.
Advertising entertains and beautifies, or so it can be argued. Some television and radio adverts are fun or funny, though the effect wears off after a few repeats. Likewise some billboards or print ads. Just as often, however, they can be dull or ugly. Apart from its legal status, there is little difference between a billboard and graffiti. Both can be beautiful or vile; neither can be avoided with ease.
Advertising drives people to switch brands. Millions of dollars, euros, pounds and yen are spent trying to get young people to switch from Adidas to Nike, or vice versa. From a global perspective, the millions are wasted. Where Adidas gains sales, Nike loses them; but the same number of sports shoes are made by Third World workers paid a basic minimum or less, then shipped around the world to places where people can afford to buy the blessed things. The name on the shoe makes no difference.
Advertising also aims to bring about new purchases. It aims to make someone who has never felt the need to buy brand name sports shoes change their minds. In this it is effective simply by bombarding consumers with the same message: buy more. Andrew Simms of the New Economics Foundation did a spot check and found that in one day he was told to buy things 454 times; in the same day he received just three communications reminding him to be a good citizen. (Listen to his radio report, which begins 19 minutes into the January 1 edition of the World Tonight from the BBC.) In a world in which overconsumption is bringing about catastrophic global warming, these may be 454 messages we cannot afford.
Which brings us to the costs of advertising. Since we don't pay directly for advertising, it's easy to imagine it comes without a price. The truth, however, is that we pay for it in almost everything we buy. If I buy a bottle of Heinz tomato ketchup in WalMart, part of the bill will go towards WalMart's advertising and part towards that of Heinz. When added up these costs are huge. Designing, printing, producing, directing and filming so many thousands of adverts for thousands of products every year is a vast industry and it's all paid for by you and me.
These adverts subsidise elements of the media, which may explain the media's general lack of criticism. Some newspapers are free to the reader. They are paid for entirely by advertisers. (Again, that means us.) The same is true of some television and radio stations, websites and search engines. And the papers and magazines we do pay for would be more expensive were it not for the adverts they carry.
Yet overall, we'd pay less without the adverts. It would cost less to print The Times without all of its adverts; and surely it would be fairer for the readers to pay for the full cost of the newspaper, rather than relying on contributions from non-readers who buy items advertised in its pages.
It would also make environmental sense for newspapers to become much smaller. A lots of trees could be saved and waste could be minimised if our broadsheets and tabloids were cut down to size. And of course there are environmental costs in the making of television and radio advertisements as well.
A final, less tangible cost which springs to mind is the opportunity cost of human creativity. A lot of very clever people work in advertising. What if they were set free to do something useful instead? Perhaps a potential Shakespeare is squandering his talents for Sony; or a new Wordsworth wasting his writing on Wilkinson's Sword. Who knows what ideas the environmental movement could gain if some of these creatives came over to the light? Who knows?
Personally, I'd love to see advertising banned. If it didn't lead us all to live sustainable lives, it would at least make that move more likely.
Perhaps business listings in telephone directories, brightly painted shopfronts and classified ads could be allowed to survive when I am world president. Oh, and public service adverts reminding us that carrots do us good and wearing a seat-belt could save our lives. But I doubt any widespread ban will come our way until real environmentalists find themselves in positions of power. Until then, perhaps we can only dream about headlines like this: Pepsi to cease advertising. (From 'the Onion' – consider the source!)