The Future of Advertising: can it promote poverty reduction?

As the countries of the global north shifted towards economies that sold things as opposed to economies that made things, the traditional social hierarchy became less ridged and less defined. John Prescott’s seminal statement “We’re all middle class now” seemed to capture the zeitgeist. In a service sector economy, legions of suited and booted office executives storm the subways and shopping centres of the new nations of aspiration. Nevertheless, large sections have still yet to take their share in the spoils of the de-industrial revolution. Detroit, once a thriving manufacturing hub is now a wasteland of broken windows and broken dreams. Tal Tyagi predicts a coming crisis – the death of advertising, but paradoxically the potential of the industry to transform and be a force to alleviate poverty and improve social mobility.

Central to the post-industrial playground of modern Britain and modern America are of course the industries that swept aside the old. Information technology, retail and of course, advertising. Today, the creative industries are worth £8 million an hour to the UK economy alone.

The average American is exposed to over 2000 ads a day. These are primarily on television, on the radio and online. But we’re disengaged and desensitised. Besides, we’ve become better at skipping ads altogether. When we fast-forward using Sky Plus, navigate the web using Adblocker or make tea during half time, we’re crippling an entire industry.

Studies have shown spending habits are more likely to be shifted by recommendations from family and friends. Companies have cottoned on. From the ashes of traditional marketing, network marketing is seemingly on the rise. This is where the company pays you to recruit a network of customers and distributors – usually family and friends. Donald Trump’s ACN, Avon and Amway are examples. In the United States alone more than 55,000 people become involved weekly! However stunning, not only is it a great way to lose friends and alienate people, such companies are repeatedly under investigation for being pyramid schemes. Just last month, Vemma Nutrition Company had its assets frozen.

Will Lion/Creative Commons License

Will Lion/Creative Commons License

Network marketing focuses on exploiting existing trust. Traditional marketing, which utilises Rupert Murdoch or Tiger Woods, bypasses this entirely. After all, who would trust a phone hacker or serial cheater? We trust our sisters, our siblings, our friends and our fiancés more than we could ever trust scandalous individuals on television.

So why not use normal individuals to advertise?

Companies could, for example, pay students to wear t-shirts or get a tattoo with their logo in exchange for paying off a student loan. More moderate advertising ideas such as paying the driver´s fuel bill as compensation for splashing his/her car with the company´s logo or helping with mortgage payments for ads outside and inside houses may also me possibilities.While critics would no doubt deem this exploitation, shouldn’t there be an alternative ladder of opportunity?

Ultimately we have to ask the question: isn’t it up to the individual to decide if they want extra income or support? The answer is easy and the ramifications of debt relief will lead to an increase in spending power which traditional economists view as a good thing.

The controversy would cut into the heart of what type of world we want to live in. Do we want to live in one where human beings are reduced to walking, talking bill boards? Moral philosopher, Michael J Sandel, touches on these exact questions, questioning what should and shouldn’t be sold and how unrestrained capitalism has the power to severely degrade our values.

Certainly, not everything should be up for sale. The practice of judges taking bribes or politicians prostituting themselves to special interests is grotesque. But it is precisely because, in these examples, the actors are selling something that is not theirs that makes them so objectionable. Democracy and justice are public goods. Someone’s car or house or for that matter, skin, is the property of the owner and therefore it should be at the discretion of the owner to sign such a contract.

Jason Hargrove /Creative Commons License

Jason Hargrove/Creative Commons License

Whether or not such practices would be humiliating is purely subjective. The person who forks out for a shirt with an Abercrombie & Fitch logo does not even realise that they are the ones who should be getting paid. A reasonable person would understand that those who take advantage of initiatives such as these are not to be looked down upon. No – in the lottery of life, someone who is willing to rent their own forehead to improve their future or help their family should be revered, not smeared.

It is more than likely that if such a strategy were to take off, the exact same problems would reappear. Car after car, house after house, head after head, we’d be numbed to the effects. This will not keep the advertising industry running forever but it does provide a temporary jump start.

This initial ‘shock’ will also divide public opinion and the bold businesses that engage in this practice will inevitably be talk of the town. Controversy generates customers – just look at the record sales of your favourite star when they’re in the media spotlight. In the end, advertising would not be saved forever. Nor would poverty be made history. But new life would be invoked into questions about how businesses can restructure themselves to increase profits, all while helping people.


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.

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