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Sell Responsibly… or Else? It’s Time to Face (Over)-Consumption and Come Up with Creative Solutions

We shouldn’t lure people into buying more than they need; but rather, help people make it all add up to a more meaningful life. Brands might be able to keep afloat on a short-term strategy and hide behind a cloak of innocence, but every dinosaur step is one closer to extinction.

Unhinged consumption, excessive packaging and doing anything-and-everything to push sales, sales, sales is slowly becoming what cigarette advertising was in the last decade: Shameful. When I started in advertising, it was common practice to add the agency’s name in fine print on the ads; often in the top-right corner. For me it carried a sense of pride, but also a sense of responsibility.

However, what’s viewed as responsible is fast-changing. When Hollywood blockbuster producer Harvey Weinstein was confronted with a tirade of sexual harassment allegations, his lawyer termed it, “An old dinosaur learning new ways.” Perhaps Weinstein should have spent more time in history class — we all know the fate of the dinosaurs. For my parents’ generation, the post-war generation, a good life was defined by material security and a steady job. For new generations, that is giving way to a definition where self-development and self-actualisation matter more; where meaning trumps pay; where story beats stuff; and where ownership of things is just one of many options. We don’t buy stuff; we rent, share or loan. It’s time we as an industry learn new ways.

Let’s use creativity to charter a new course

Sustainability is mainstream and brands are investing in changing products, services and activities in a more sustainable direction — such as adidasrecycled ocean plastic shoes, Carlsberg's Snap Pack (eliminating the six-pack ring); or the circular product platform Loop, where packaging is collected, cleaned, refilled and reused.

These are great strides; and ultimately, what is needed — but has advertising really changed its selling tune? As advertising watchdogs are doing their part on equality and health, consumption is still under the radar — but for how long? I don’t think we as an industry should wait for regulators; we should dare to use creativity to charter new territories. Some campaigns are stepping up to the challenge, such as REI’s #OptOutside, asking people to enjoy the outdoors rather than go shopping. Or Patagonia’s “Don’t buy this jacket,” suggesting that people either “Reduce, repair, reuse, recycle or reimagine” before they buy a new one. The clever startup, Doconomy — with its “Do Black” credit card — shows the carbon footprint of your shopping, but it also puts a carbon (consumption) limit on the card. And do we really need all that stuff? In the Western world the answer is simple: We don’t! Fashion retailer Carlings has launched an all-digital clothing line, “adDRESS_THE_FUTURE” — no new clothes, but young people can still look fashionably cool on Insta!

More wholesome communication calories

If you’re busy selling, that’s what’ll you’ll become: A salesperson. Someone easily ignored, skipped or having the door slammed in their face. We need to get back to building brands that serve as lighthouses, rather than the cheapest possible, towering, concrete slabs; somewhere for people’s brains to seek shelter. I don’t expect us to succeed tomorrow, but I want us to have this dialogue — as uncomfortable as it might seem.

I believe, naively maybe, that if we feed people’s brains with wholesome, nutrient-rich communication calories; we will see healthier people, healthier communities and healthier, longer-living brands.

What you need versus what you want

It’s a fine line to walk between what people want and what they need — what’s good for you versus what you like or are tricked into thinking you want. It’s like math. Take the alarming health crisis, with people getting fatter. There’s nothing wrong with drinking a Coke; it’s when you add those calories up — you either choose to stay within what’s needed, calorie-wise, or get tempted to go beyond. Everyone has the right to draw their own lines as individuals, but as an industry we have a significant role to play. The indecipherable nutritional value charts on food and beverages don’t exactly help people make the choice they need. So, what is the balance between what people need versus what we are selling? Coca-Cola in 3-litre bottles? Buy 3 Snickers for the price of 2? Get three jerseys and save the price of the least expensive? We shouldn’t lure people into buying more than they need — that’s neither good for brand, people or planet in the long term — but rather help people make it all add up to a more meaningful life. If it’s not an informed choice, it’s called deceit. Brands might be able to keep afloat on a short-term strategy and hide behind a cloak of innocence, but every dinosaur step is one closer to extinction.

Would you put your name on a cigarette ad? What about a 3-for-1 promo?

The founder of Adbusters magazine, Kalle Lasn, has called advertising, “The single largest psychological experiment ever carried out on the human race.” When you do that next ad, think about if your children or your loved ones would be proud to read your name on it! David Ogilvy famously said, “We sell or else,” to emphasise his namesake agency’s effectiveness; but do we really want to put the health of our planet, communities and those we love at stake for another cheeky birthday sale? I don’t have the solution, but I want us to have the conversation — let’s reimagine a new, responsible way forward. To do so, I’ve attempted what I’m calling an ‘Unconsumption List’ — a new way of thinking about how we consume and how we encourage others to do the same. Please do include your ideas and input; this is only something we’ll be able to solve together!

The Unconsumption List:

  • Don’t promote consumption as a route to happiness, success or love.

  • Excess promotions like combos, two-for-ones and three-for-twos are predatory and unnecessary.

  • Promote needs, not wants.

  • Create meaning, not materialism.

  • Don’t use sales to promote mindless shopping.

  • Don't turn every day of the year into a shopping holiday. Christmas is enough!

  • Fight the superfluous, from packaging to advertising.

  • Less is more, and is in fact what you need. No more three litre sodas!

  • When in doubt, refer to the 5 Rs: Reduce, repair, reuse, recycle or reimagine.

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