Think of Me as Evil? Opening the Ethical Debates in Advertising

January 2011
Report produced by the Public Interest Research Centre and WWF-UK

When we reflect on the social and environmental impact of advertising, we probably think about the objectification of women and promotion of particular body-types, or perhaps about the social impact of specific goods and services (e.g. tobacco or high-carbon products). But this report marshalls the evidence that there is another critically important impact of advertising – one that it frequently overlooked. Advertising models and embeds materialistic values – the misperception that “consumers” (i.e. people) can pursue fulfilment, wellbeing and meaningful relationships through the things that they buy. This report shows how this is socially and environmentally damaging.

The report takes its title from an opening quote by Rory Sutherland (formerly President of the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising), who says that in his role as an marketer he’d rather be thought of as evil than as useless.

this if...

  • You’re a marketer who is interested in evidence-based critiques of the social and environmental impacts of the advertising industry
  • You’re a campaigner who is interested in some of the systemic - and often overlooked - drivers of our social and environmental crises

Key Takeaways

  1. Advertising promotes and normalises a whole host of behaviours, attitudes and values that are detrimental to our wellbeing, and that often exacerbate the social and environmental problems we collectively confront.
  2. The majority of advertising money is spent in ways that appeal to extrinsic values – that is, values associated with lower motivation to address social or environmental problems.
  3. Due to the pervasiveness of advertising, a person is likely to be influenced to attach greater importance to extrinsic values over time, thus displaying a reduced concern for social and environmental issues.
  4. Even adverts that appeal to intrinsic values can do more harm than good, due to reinforcing the perception that intrinsic values can meaningfully be pursued through the purchase of a particular product.
  5. Responsible companies need to examine the values they appeal to in their advertisements, and therefore, strengthen in wider society.
  6. Civil society organisations seeking to tackle a wide range of social and environmental issues need to understand how advertising may be undermining public concern about these problems by promoting extrinsic values at a cultural level.

Toolkit resources

Why fundraise?

Is there a way to fundraise without being in direct competition with other charities?

Do you feel like a fraud?

Are your communications engaging people as citizens or consumers?

Free gifts and supporter journeys

Exploring some of the challenges posed by the pressures of short-term fundraising

Reasons to volunteer

Reflecting on intrinsic motivations to volunteer

Value surveys and maps

More information on the two values surveys that Common Cause draws on in its work

Material tested in our experiments

Further information on the texts used in the study with WWF and Scope

Summary of published research

A summary of results from research into priming values

Other resources
you might like

Perceptions Matter: Report & Summary

Communicating bigger-than-self problems to extrinsically-orientated audiences

Common Cause: The Case for Working with our Cultural Values

Skip to content