Christmas ads promote excess. But unsustainable advertising is an ongoing problem | Commentary and opinion

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It’s the season for festive advertising. How many times have you seen Morrisons ‘Farmers’ Christmas or Tesco’s Double Vax Santa? If you like seasonal joy, you can get a warm glow from all the ho ho ho. But wall-to-wall advertising can do more harm than good. Does it matter if festive ads encourage excess?

Some sustainability activists will target the holiday season and legitimately complain about excessive food waste. A lot of seasonal announcements are about decadent holidays, but they also talk about getting together with family and friends, which is really important, especially nowadays.

There is still time to be reasonable and avoid unnecessary food waste in December, but let’s avoid accusations of blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah put forward, as Greta Thunberg might say, by getting the green message out only during the holiday season. My plea is to normalize sustainable behaviors on a daily basis, rather than focusing sustainability efforts on the main festive events of the calendar.

Some in the advertising industry may still play the “don’t shoot the messenger” card when it comes to environmental and social damage, saying they are beholden to customers, including big food brands. In 2021, when questions of sustainability are increasingly central, such an argument does not hold water.

We know that ads can influence behavior, but have we all stopped thinking about the broader impacts of advertising? Take its contribution to global warming. The ad added an additional 28% to every person’s annual carbon footprint in the UK in 2019, according to Purpose Disruptors. His Emissions report announced, launched at COP26, highlights greenhouse gas emissions resulting from increased sales generated by advertising.

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Advertising – done differently – could promote sustainable lifestyles and help reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The planned government restrictions on advertising are a step in the right direction, but change is slow and gradual. I expect more restrictions on advertising for unhealthy food and drink to be in the future and the promotion of ultra-processed food products to come under more scrutiny. We already know that the playing field is not level when it comes to ad spending. According to Peas Please, only 1.9% of food and soft drink advertising is devoted to the promotion of vegetables. Increase the proportion of advertising promoting vegetables – and fruits, whole grains, nuts, legumes, etc. – would be welcome.

It is not just what is advertised that is the problem. The quantity and variety of messages telling us to consume, consume, consume are extremely damaging. We are bombarded, every day, everywhere we look, with advertisements, hashtags, videos and logos.

However, we are more than just consumers. The New Citizenship Project inspired the work of the Food Ethics Council to promote the concept of food citizenship to replace consumerism. Changing the volume, type and messaging of the advertising to which we are subjected is a necessary and important change.

The specialized press also has an important role. I was disappointed to read an article in The Grocer on how brands can get around the junk food advertising ban. The food industry is doing itself no favor by simply bending the rules.

So, I don’t mind a few festive TV commercials. But we need fewer ads throughout the year, especially those promoting junk food, across all advertising media. The food and beverage industry can lead the way in responsible advertising that has positive impacts on health, society and the environment. Sustainability doesn’t have to be about sacrifice. Food that is good for people, the planet, and animals should be something we can all celebrate.


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