We’ve reached a point where the majority of people are aware that climate change is real and that it’s caused mostly by our overdependence on fossil fuels for power generation and transportation. Yet citizens are not exerting enough pressure on governments and industries to make changes quickly enough. Meanwhile, individually, not enough people are taking advantage of rebates to buy either plug-in hybrids or fully electric vehicles. We are not doing enough to lower our electric bills, which would not only mitigate climate change but also leave more money in our pockets. Nor were we flying less before COVID19 or eating less meat on a worldwide basis. Why?
We often see parallels between the way both oil and tobacco companies have operated. While being aware of the science linking their products to harmful effects, both have invested heavily in denial campaigns. But we overlook what caused society to become addicted to both oil-overconsumption and tobacco in the first place. Marketing. As far back as the 1600s, James VI of Scotland dissuaded his subjects from smoking. Anybody who has his first puff and forgets for a minute the impulse to impress peers instinctively feels repulsion from the awful taste of tobacco smoke and its painful impact on lungs. While the 1950s and 60s provided more rigorous research, as early as in 1929, Fritz Lickint‘s statistical analysis strongly linked lung cancer to smoking.
But marketers have always known that people are irrational. They sold cigarettes by appealing to other needs, and the addictive nature of nicotine further propelled sales. To get people hooked they gave away free cigarettes to World War I soldiers, and did likewise during the Second World War. In the 1920s, companies exploited the women’s independent movements by marketing cigarettes as “torches of freedom”. When radio became popular in the 1940s, tobacco companies were major sponsors. By the early 1960s, they ran ads during the most popular TV shows such as the Flintstones, which was aimed at children and adults alike.
Finally in 1964, after much public pressure, tobacco companies agreed to stop aiming advertising at children. Six years later, on April 1, Richard Nixon signed legislation banning cigarette advertising on radio and TV in the U.S. Not surprisingly, after putting a severe dent in what motivated people to take up smoking, sales plummeted, preventing suffering and millions of premature deaths worldwide.
Here is a plot of smoking prevalence since the changes in advertising laws.
Cars with internal combustion engines contribute 1/5th of all carbon dioxide emissions. There are approximately two vehicles for every family living in the United States or Canada. China and India, who collectively have 4.75 times our population, are eager to imitate us. Yet cars are expensive to maintain and run on gasoline; they don’t last long and, in cities where most people live, they keep people seated and trapped in traffic jams. Why then do people buy and use them so often? Cars are marketed to be a slick, sexy ride to higher status. No matter how often you tell people that they are an outdated technology, a cause of climate change and of smog and PM 2.5 pollution, they will keep buying them until many countries phase out their sales 10 to 20 years from now. In the interim period, only a worldwide ban on the advertisement of gasoline-powered cars will severely dent sales and cut down emissions faster. A worldwide phaseout is required as well; it should be an integral part of free trade agreements. So far mainland China is planning to phase them out too slowly, over a period of 40 years, while, except for California, the fossil-fuel addicted US has made no plans at all.
Similarly, although air travel accounts for only about 5% of carbon emissions, the demand will only mushroom as China and India keep becoming more affluent. Traveling is a pleasure of life, but advertising encourages us to travel excessively. If we get jaded, no problem: every year, new destinations become trendy. Again, a ban in advertising is the only way to remove the artificial need to fly perennially, which for many consumers is an understatement.
People working in marketing have already stopped reading. But I’m also advocating that governments advertise incentives and strategies to conserve electricity. Rates should be low for low-consumption but should quickly escalate to dissuade families from buying 2 or more electric vehicles and from having homes that are big enough to accommodate half the animals in Noah’s Ark.
Individual and bot accounts keep spreading climate change denial propaganda on social media. Aside from being a hindrance to mitigation, their nonsensical graphs and misleading information fill servers, which consume a lot of electricity. Thirty years ago, if you wrote a letter filled with false scientific information to an editor, it would rarely get published. But now anybody can spread horizontal propaganda. Social media companies have demonstrated that they lack the standards of traditional media. Only government intervention can stop them from disseminating insidious advertising disguised as knowledge and freedom of expression.