So another Cannes came, and another Cannes went. Corks were popped, backs were patted and little gold lions handed to the year’s grand masters of persuasion.
At least I assume that’s what happened. As usual, I didn’t go, preferring to skip the annual blow-out of an industry that needs to question, not toast, what it does.
You see, I worry about advertising. I worry that in the service of its paymaster – business – it’s got a big fat amoral licence to persuade whoever of whatever, whatever damage it does.
What kind of damage? The damage advertising does by asking each of us to be either a sexualised woman or a mother, beanpole thin or a great character, white or cool. By insisting we continually strive to be better than we were, or others are.
Some of these issues were explored at Cannes. On podiums and panels through the festival, the talk was of gender, diversity and inclusion, and of the power advertising has to affect each of us.
But no one talked about a certain type of advertising that affects all of us.
By being production-heavy, or CO2-intensive, or non-reusable or non-recyclable, many of the products we’re paid to promote have an irrefutably negative effect on the environment. When an ad sells another one of these products, it advances its client’s profitability, but also harms the prospects of humanity.
Which brings us to an extremely inconvenient truth for our industry that wasn’t raised at Cannes – in fact, I’m not sure I’ve seen it raised anywhere: that products like these shouldn’t be allowed to advertise.
And if that sounds naive, let’s remember we have a precedent.
At the turn of the century, after a fifty-year series of pushes by doctors, researchers, campaigners and governments, tobacco advertising was deemed to be against the interests of society and banned in many markets around the world.
Although the efficacy of cigarette advertising was contested by the tobacco firms (they disingenuously claimed it was a brand-switcher not a habit-starter – nice try), in the teeth of their wheezing argument flew the facts.
Free to advertise their little addictive sticks as solace (‘You’re never alone with a Strand’), uppers (‘Cigares de joy’) and even turn-ons (‘Blow in her face and she’ll follow you anywhere’), cigarettes were unstoppable. In 1974, 46% of the UK smoked. Today, with the Marlboro Man well and truly buried in a machismo desert and B&H’s abstract gold tropes confined to the surrealist dustbin, that figure is less than 16%.
Advertising – and more importantly, the ban of advertising – worked.
Now, fifteen years after we stubbed out tobacco ads, we’re rightly examining the advertising rights of other products that harm society such as alcohol and junk food (and for the latter, a deserved call out to London Mayor Sadiq Khan – weak on bike lanes, tough on burgers).
But if we’re looking for advertising that does wide-ranging damage, aren’t we missing the biggest offenders of all – the products that contribute to climate change?
If, as it brutally states on the front of a fag packet, SMOKING KILLS, then surely OIL KILLS, FAST FASHION KILLS, MEAT KILLS, SINGLE USE PLASTIC KILLS, MINERAL WATER KILLS, IMPORTED AVOCADOS KILL, DRIVING KILLS and FLYING KILLS?
Kills, by being an inextricable part of the fossil-fuelled, waste-addicted, squarely-uncircular overconsumption economy. An economy that’s affecting sea levels, catalysing natural disasters, accelerating climate migration and spreading disease right now in many parts of the world, and soon in all.
Using the same logic that led to the cigarette advertising ban, how can we let these products publicly promote themselves when, underneath their bright and shiny promises of instant style, speed, taste and pleasure lies the much darker promise of long-term hardship?
Put simply, we can’t.
Something must change, and will change, though let’s not underestimate the challenges.
There’s the challenge of ratification. How do you establish the carbon consequences of a low-slung Primark dress versus a low-slung Lamborghini? Or whether South African beef gets advertising silenced while South London chickens can cluck their promotional hearts out?
There’s the challenge of focus. When they moved against cigarettes, a worldwide alliance of scientists, citizens, lawyers and governments could focus on a substance that was simple to target (a bunch of boxes on a shelf) and easy to demonise (the smell, the smoke, the butts, the tar). How do we mobilise an equally powerful cast of protagonists against an antagonist that’s both aspirational and pervasive, with a firm grip on our values, embedded in every part of our lives?
There’s the challenge of modern media. Paid-for media is the most straightforward to regulate, but consumption is an addiction and addiction finds a way around paid-for. To be be truly effective, how will regulation systemise its way across owned channels, social media, point of sale, pack and search? And how the hell does anyone regulate Amazon?
I’m not sure how to deal with these challenges, but I suspect that when you’ve got a moral scale (from corporate self-interest to social citizenship) and a moral imperative (let’s make the world habitable for generations to come), the frameworks will follow.
But there’s a bigger, more troubling challenge – money.
While it’s easy to point fingers at the Topshops, Volkswagens and easyJets of this world, and roll eyes at the businesses profiting now from future calamity, advertising is one of those businesses. Whether we’re conscious of it or not, or comfortable with it or not, many of us are getting paid to accelerate climate change.
Would our shaky business model, already rattled by management consultancies and the march of AI creativity, survive a shake-down on consumption, the uber-client we’re all paid to serve?
It’s not easy to make a living by insisting on work that’s, at worst, climate-change neutral. To look at every new project through nicotine-tinted glasses, ready to see it – and reject it – as a twenty-first century cigarette. But if we look beyond the me, here and now of advertising’s short-sightedness, we’ll realise it’s something that has to be done.
For Cannes next year, alongside the important debate about inclusion, I’d like to propose an equally important debate about exclusion.
A debate about our practice, and how to say no to work that harms our planet, and how to do so purposefully and sustainably.
World Warning Labels by Paula Scher
So that’s the provocation. Now for a suggestion.
To any brand or agency that doesn’t want to wait fifty years for a piece of legislation, or even one year for a debate that may or may not happen at Cannes, and is ready to be brave enough and decent enough to be honest about their product’s environment effect.
For those conscientious brands or agencies, we’ve commissioned a set of exclusive Do The Green Thing World Warning Labels from one of the world’s greatest designers, my Pentagram colleague and Partner, Paula Scher.
“The warning labels were designed to address the content of each global problem, be able to be reproduced quite small, be designed in the language of warning labels and poke fun at themselves in spite of the disasters at hand.” ”
Paula Scher, Partner at Pentagram
The twenty-first century equivalent of Smoking Kills, these highly playful but deadly serious warning labels are ready to grace any ads for products that have previously unseen environmental consequences, and are ready to tell their inconvenient truth.
Brave brands can download the labels here.