May 11th, 2011

Subvertising: billboard ads for the public interest

The Ecologist

We live in a world where children find it easy to identify brand names but difficult to identify native plants. This cultural phenomenon is highlighted by American Artist Heidi Cody’s brand alphabet installations.

The online sphere is alive with blog posts arguing that advertising is wrong, unethical and even ‘evil’.

In 2010 the UN warned that climate change and a culture of consumerism were the greatest threats to the civilisation’s future wellbeing and prosperity - and there is no doubt that advertising drives consumerism..

Emeritus professor of philosophy, Kate Soper, says ‘Advertising as as ethical as the capitalist system that it serves.’ However, Soper thinks that given the context of a market economy, there is a spectrum of advertisers from the ‘okay’ to ‘not very ethical’.

‘On one end you have perfectly honest providers just trying to communicate with the public about what is on offer and on the other end you have manipulative and aggressive strategies geared at persuading the vulnerable like children to buy what they probably don’t really need and have to be persuaded that they want,’ she says.

For example, MacDonald’s advertising their unhealthy kids’ meals or Walmart’s website encouraging children to pick out Christmas presents to create a list to send to parents.

The epidemic of advertising is particularly concerning in the outdoor advertising sphere, where individuals do not have a choice about seeing ads. Soper says she would rather see more artwork replacing advertising on public transport and on billboards. One group, called Public Ad Campaign, is paving the way forwards by hijacking public advertising spaces with art and poetry in Madrid, Toronto and New York.

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