Not buying on impulse?

Posted on April 14, 2011


Behind every gold wedding ring lies a genuine gold mine, and the possibility of a massive cyanide spill.  Behind a tuna steak is a decimated tuna population.  Behind a comfortable car is a strip mine, a hundred toxic chemicals leaching into nature, and war in the Middle East.

This  Alan AtKisson (2008) quote highlights the fundamental issue of sustainability – it is the things we buy that really matter.   Fundamentally, we need to buy less.   Unfortunately a “less is more” message is a difficult sell.  We are not likely to see a billboard that says  “Do not buy our product”.   Mass marketing tools are the basis of our consumption based culture.

Osbaldiston and Sheldon (2002) observed that the sustainability message in the media is overwhelmed by messages going in the other direction.

For every 60 second spot about global warming, there are probably thousands of other commercial messages that glamorize fuel-inefficient vehicles, air travel…

Three options

1.  Try and educate to be impervious to advertising,  or if that is not possible, try and impart a critical view of it.  In part, this is the approach taken by Goleman’s Ecological Intelligence,  (earlier post).

2.  We could remove all  marketing. Is this possible?  Would it work?  There are some precedents.    Just over five years ago,  the mayor of Brazil’s largest city launched a “Clean City” campaign to rid  Sao Paulo of “visual pollution,” banning all outdoor advertising.    Advertising and business groups regarded the legislation as injurious to society and an affront to their professions.  They said that free expression will be inhibited, jobs will be lost and consumers will have less information on which to base purchasing decisions.   Proponents such as (Roberto Pompeu de Toledo in  Factiva 2006) argued that the law is

a rare victory of the public interest over private, of order over disorder, aesthetics over ugliness, of cleanliness over trash

For once in life, all that is accustomed to coming out on top in Brazil has lost

There are clear benefits for visual simplicity, but would it result in more sustainable behaviour?  And is it anti-business?  Good magazine argues that:

But the big fight always comes from the outdoor advertising industry, and the idea that businesses have some a priori right to post their messages in the public landscape is totally bunk. There’s no natural law that says you can buy space in everyone’s field of vision.  Citizens should decide what they want for public space without disproportionate corporate influence.

We can take heed of the Sao Paulo experience – it was possible to change the culture of the city – the visual pollution has been cleared up,  and the city economy has continued.    There are now widespread moves from both sides of political arenas to replicate such moves (UK, California, to join other long-standing bans such as those in Maine and Vermont).

But here’s the rub – the outdoor signage has gone – but consumption has not been affected – Sao Paulo still has the biggest economy in Latin America – people still buy stuff.     Partially this can be explained by marketers moving to new channels: indoor billboards, social networks, and viral campaigns (Business Week)  – but it doesn’t help much with the idea that marketing is the sole driver of consumption.

There’s another precedent: smoking.     Proponents of bans on tobacco product advertising certainly think that reducing marketing will reduce consumption (ASH).  And the evidence supports them (Chalouoka and Warner 2000)  The Smee report:

The balance of evidence thus supports the conclusion that advertising does have a positive effect on consumption.

Reviewing the impact of advertising bans that had been introduced at the time, Smee concluded:

In each case the banning of advertising was followed by a fall in smoking on a scale which cannot be reasonably attributed to other factors.

This clearly shows that advertising affects decisions on whether to smoke, as well as those on which brand to choose.   Again, bans on above the line advertising have seen an increase in point of sale marketing, plain packaging, sponsorship, experience marketing, positive imagery (eg in films).

Green(wash?) in Portland

3.  We could recognise value of marketing

When tobacco companies sell cigarettes, they are selling two main things. First, there is the physical product itself, the most important component of which is nicotine. Second, there is “imagery,” the intangible life-style characteristics created by marketing.   Few teenagers begin smoking for a cigarette’s inherent physical qualities.  Instead, teens are attracted to smoking for its imagery attributes, such as the five S’s: sophistication, slimness, social acceptability, sexual attractiveness, and status.   We need to learn from this for Sustainability. The Green Party advertising campaign in the NZ 2009 election got this (they also got interaction and engagement – earlier post).

Unfortunately those with stuff to sell got there before us.    We need serious wet-weather gear to wade through the  greenwash (earlier post).

Another approach is that described by Rory Sutherland.

If you think about it, if you want to live in a world in the future where there are fewer material goods, you basically have two choices. You can either live in a world which is poorer, which people in general don’t like. Or you can live in a world where actually intangible value constitutes a greater part of overall value, that actually intangible value, in many ways is a very, very fine substitute for using up labor or limited resources in the creation of things.

Sutherland argues that we need to break the connection between material value and perceived value. He combines this with an his argument that

We need to spend more time appreciating what already exists, and less time agonizing over what else we can do.

It is, of course a combination of all three approaches that we need to help us buy less stuff.   Sutherland points out that we have lots of support for impulse buying, but we’ve never created an opportunity for impulse saving. He, half jokingly, proposes a red button for impulse saving.   The same need applies for sustainability – so here’s my question to finish with: what would impulse sustainability look like?   And what marketing devices could be used to help us make that sudden non-purchase?