Anti-consumerism ads make Channel 2 uncomfortable

Environmental Protection Ministry initiates broadcast campaign to encourage less consumption by Israelis; Ch. 2 refuses to broadcast spots.

December 12, 2010 23:35
2 minute read.

vegetables 311. (photo credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Mankind has been getting smarter and smarter when it comes to producing material well-being. The productivity of workers today is much higher than it was in ancient times. Growing productivity enables you to enjoy the same material standard of living with less and less work, or the same amount of work with an increasing level of consumption.

English economist John Maynard Keynes predicted in a famous 1930 address that mankind would go the first route. He believed that the great problem of humanity would be how to make productive use of our leisure time. Keynes was a wealthy man, and it was probably hard for him to imagine who could desire an even more lavish lifestyle.

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But practically speaking, the trend has been the opposite. The number of hours worked has declined since pre-industrial times, but not by very much, and lately the rate of decline has been negligible.

By contrast, the level of consumption has been growing steadily and has for centuries been approximately doubling each generation.

Perhaps the market system actually depends on this dynamic.

Many agree with economist Victor Lebow, who wrote in a 1950s article: “Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfactions, our ego satisfactions, in consumption... We need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced and discarded at an ever increasing pace.”

One consequence of this situation is that our “ecological footprint” – the amount of natural resources needed to sustain our lifestyle – is constantly increasing.

Not everyone is happy with this situation.

Some of these resources are renewable, but others are not. All in all, the natural environment would probably be much more sustainable if we consumed less and spent more of our time and energy in study, reading, talking and other activities that consume few resources.

The Environmental Protection Ministry decided that promoting this trend toward moderating consumption is part of its mandate. It initiated a “Green 0” broadcast campaign to encourage less consumption by Israelis. The campaign targets two fictitious store chains: one called “Mega Sal” and the other “Super Bul.”

Channel 2 has refused to broadcast the spots, concerned that they reflect badly on actual chains with similar names and logos, which are among the station’s leading advertisers.

The ministry is incensed because it believes the similarity to actual chains is critical to getting consumers to internalize the message.

It is clear that the similarity of the names and logos is only a small part of the problem. When competing chains engage in similar tactics in their own ads, the networks are seldom reluctant to accept them.

The problem here is more fundamental: The magic goose of consumerism is what lays the golden egg of ad revenue. An ad that encourages people not to consume threatens to kill the goose.

There can be little doubt that the coming years will see more and more of this kind of conflict. It won’t be a battle of one consumer product versus another, but rather the battle of consumerism versus anti-consumerism, and it will play itself out in the home court of consumerism: advertising in the mass media.

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Asher Meir is research director at the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem, an independent institute in the Jerusalem College of Technology (Machon Lev).

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