Friday Ephemera
Reheated (4)

Avert Your Eyes

The Guardian’s George Monbiot is feeling a little dirty, a little compromised. In a typically understated piece, titled Newspapers Must Stop Taking Advertising from Environmental Villains, Mr Monbiot ponders “the extent to which newspapers should restrict the advertisements they carry.”

Readers will doubtless be shocked to hear that newspapers, and their columnists, depend on advertising...

It pays my wages. More precisely, it provides around three-quarters of newspapers’ income. Without it, they would not exist: certainly not in their current form, almost certainly not at all. For all their evident faults, newspapers perform a crucial democratic service: without professional reporting, it is impossible to make informed decisions.

And here’s a small compendium of the Guardian’s “professional reporting,” without which “it is impossible to make informed decisions.”

The problem at hand, at least for Monbiot, is this. Advertising is bad, you see. All of it. Very, very bad.

I believe that advertising is a pox on the planet. It is one of the forces driving us towards destruction, as it creates needs that did not exist before and promotes consumption way beyond sustainable levels. I believe that it is also socially damaging, turning ours into a more grasping, more atomised society, focused on material display rather than solidarity and community action.

Sadly, no evidence is offered to support this tangle of emphatic supposition. Though questions do spring to mind. Exactly how would one go about measuring the alleged “atomising” and “socially damaging” effect of an advert for cheap flights or a car, or for something more mundane - say, a nice pair of shoes? Exactly how much shoe advertising, or shoe consumption, constitutes wickedness? Is there a preferred, morally elevated, level of shoe ownership?

[Adverts] generate behavioural norms, telling us, in effect, that the goods and services which are destroying the biosphere are acceptable, even beneficial. I believe that their presence in the newspapers makes hypocrites of all those of us who write for them. Our editorials urge people to reduce their impacts. Our advertisements urge people to increase them.

Actually, the charge of hypocrisy isn’t dependent on accepting adverts for things readers may want and for which they’re willing to pay. The prodigious hypocrisy of Monbiot’s employer, Alan Rusbridger, has previously been noted, and in Monbiot’s case there are other, more immediate, reasons to mutter “hypocrite.” Not least the amount of air travel the columnist indulged in to promote his book on the unacceptability of air travel, an activity he saw fit to equate with child abuse

Having aired his belief that advertising is “a pox… driving us toward destruction,” Monbiot goes on to suggest three financial models for keeping the Guardian, and himself, afloat:

1. Keep receiving income from adverts, sustaining the power and wealth of the corporations that place them.

Corporations are, of course, evil. And the dirt just won’t come off.

2. Rely on the beneficence of rich men and women to sponsor the newspapers, boosting the power of the proprietorial class.


3. Go to the state.

This third option offers a small hint of the arrogance in play here – the extraordinary sense of entitlement. While Mr Monbiot frets about a great many things, including the allegedly corrosive influence of the Top Gear motoring programme, he seems untroubled by the morality of an already heavily-subsidised newspaper that still loses millions expecting the taxpayer to make up the shortfall and fund its righteousness. (The Guardian’s weekly acreage of adverts for dubious public sector jobs, all paid for by the taxpayer, clearly isn’t enough.) Mercifully, this option is rejected as “hazardous.”

Thus, the problem remains.

Our editorials tell people to reduce their impact on the planet, but our advertising urges people to consume more.

And, for some, this dilemma cannot stand.

When I have challenged newspaper editors on this issue, they tend to say… that the readers are mostly grown-ups and should be treated as such. It is patronising and offensive to free speech to decide on their behalf which adverts they should and shouldn’t see. They should be allowed to make their own decisions.

Indeed. Surely the Guardian’s issue-conscious readers can determine their own spending choices? Those aggrieved by the naked materialism soiling the pages of their otherwise morally pristine newspaper can always complain to the editor and, should indignation overwhelm, find their news elsewhere. However, Monbiot doesn’t hold with such a decadent, laissez-faire approach: 

[T]he claim that we should leave people to make their own decisions is inconsistent and hypocritical. Where are the ads for pornography in these papers? Where are the ads using violent or sexually explicit images?

Having casually equated adverts for foreign holidays with images of violence and hardcore pornography, the Guardian’s foremost eco-warrior feels some intervention is called for.

People working for these newspapers decide which advertisements are acceptable and which are not… We are making decisions on our readers’ behalf and deciding that there are certain points of view they shouldn’t be exposed to, or certain activities in which they shouldn’t be encouraged to engage.

Yes, the firm hand of Monbiot will guide us to the light. And remember, those car adverts are just like pornography and images of violence. They’re “driving us towards destruction.” We mustn’t be exposed to them.

What I am asking is for the newspapers to refine their view of which advertisements are and are not acceptable. Specifically, I am calling on them in the first instance to drop ads for cars which produce more than 150g of CO2/km, and to drop direct advertising for flights, on the grounds that both these products cause unequivocal and unnecessary harm to the environment.

Evidently, Mr Monbiot expects newspaper proprietors to share his view of what is and isn’t acceptable, and doubtless he’ll be happy to accept the sizeable pay cut likely to follow such a move. Aroused by this sacrifice, perhaps he’ll extend his censorious urges beyond mere advertising. Say, to the Guardian’s own travel pages, where editorial copy recklessly urges readers to visit Austria, Spain and New York. And if Monbiot is still troubled by the prospect of “promoting consumption” and with it a “grasping, more atomised society,” perhaps he should forsake his regular column - and his tainted salary - and apply his talents in some other sphere. One in which adverts for cars and holidays don’t prey upon his mind and leave him feeling dirty. Better yet, the Guardian could decline all advertising that might be seen as in any way encouraging the imminent disintegration of society, thus eliminating its own carbon footprint within a matter of weeks.


George Monbiot. Saving us from ourselves.


Karen M

Poor Georgie. He just wants to be in charge.


There is a decidedly illiberal pattern in his rhetoric. Ludicrous comparisons are another standard feature – car adverts and pornography, for instance, or air travel and child abuse. And every other article seems to call for something, somewhere to be banned, punished or taken out and horsewhipped. His articles on the Top Gear programme and its supposedly corrosive effect were fairly typical, in that he struggled to comprehend why a TV show of which he disapproves is *allowed* to remain on air. His po-faced accusations of criminal incitement were unintentionally hilarious and actually rather sad.


So advertising brainwashes us all into becoming mindless consumerbots -- and yet whenever it's postulated that certain films, music, TV shows, etc might actually influence the culture in negative ways, the first in line to pooh-pooh such a patently ABSURD notion are always Lefties like Monbiot.

Well, which is it, fellas? C'mon, I don't have all day here -- I need to go destroy the planet by shopping for more frivolous and unnecessary items. These worn-out old organic free-range hair shirts aren't gonna replace themselves, you know.


"3. Go to the state."

4. Go to the wall.

Ryan W

You know, I can't decide if I'd prefer George stay out there as an example of the hectoring, megalomaniacal fools the Gaia-ists would prove to be if they achieve the power they desire, or if I'd just rather hit him with a shovel.


Typical of leftists is the all-consuming desire to control the actions of others, as though they were the only ones with the intelligence to guide us through life.
Thanks, but I'll make my own decisions.
And I'd like the next turn with that shovel.

Simen Thoresen

I expect mr Monbiot to be quite happy accepting a suitably sustainable and ethical pay-cut, assuming he has his relevant expenses reimbursed, or rater, payed for directly so that he does not need to sully himself with the payments. The definition of 'relevant', being mostly subjective of course.


Spiny Norman

Although Perry de Havilland emphatically states that the term he coined for the loony Left, "barking moonbat" was not inspired by Monbiot, it is times like this that make Georgie the most deserving of that moniker.

Horace Dunn

Another financial model that Mr Monbiot might like to consider is this:

4. Stop all this sanctimonious bitching and write something entertaining and informative instead. Then perhaps more people will want to buy our newspaper.

Ever wonder why Guardianistas hate capitalism so much?

carbon based lifeform

"So advertising brainwashes us all into becoming mindless consumerbots"

Except George. He's immune. I guess he's just better than us.


“He’s immune. I guess he’s just better than us.”

It’s funny how egalitarian sentiment often leads to that conclusion.

Spiny Norman

Because they're closet (well, some not so closeted) Stalinists.

Spiny Norman


"Ever wonder why Guardianistas hate capitalism so much?"

(Add to my above post)


"...naked materialism soiling the pages of their otherwise morally pristine newspaper"



Advertising has become a form of pollution.
There is just too damned much advertising everywhere.


Here's a little fact to upset our George. The Guardian Media Group, together with it's partners Apex, own Trader Media Group, the publishers of Autotrader: Britains leading car trader magazine.

Also worth reading on Monbiot, here's Brendan O’Neill:

"George Monbiot, the Guardian columnist and predictor of the world’s end, has undergone a metamorphosis of Kafkaesque proportions in recent years. Never mind poor Gregor Samsa, who awoke one morning to find himself transmogrified into a monstrous insect; Monbiot has made an even more remarkable cross-species leap. Some time during the past five years he went to bed an hysteric, the closest thing Britain had to a nutty Nostradamus, and awoke to find himself labelled a man of reason"

It's interesting to recall that George is the son of Tory grandee Raymond Geoffrey, once the deputy chairman of the Conservative Party and Chairman of the National Convention, and of Rosalie, daughter of a Tory MP and herself a Conservative councillor. I think it makes little sense to think of George as a traditional raving lefty. It's actually more accurate to understand him as the child of the Patrician class, who take it as their self evident right to rule over the peasants. Recall too that in Marx's era there was a major bust up between the "scientific" socialists and tory socialists; the latter wanted to restore the world to a utopian past of man in harmony with nature - ie. pre industrial revolution. George Watson has written elsewhere on this phenomena. Now that "scientific" socialism has been tested to destruction, it's no surprise that the older variety is re-emerging.

Andrew Zalotocky

TDK: many of the people behind Spiked were members of the Revolutionary Communist Party. IIRC Brendan O'Neill used to write for the RCP magazine "Living Marxism". So Spiked's ongoing war against environmentalism is actually a continuation of that old conflict between the "scientific" and romantic strands of socialism.

Geoffrey Falk

"Typical of leftists is the all-consuming desire to control the actions of others, as though they were the only ones with the intelligence to guide us through life."

Equally, typical of rightists is the all-consuming desire to control the actions of others, as though they were the only ones with the moral sense to guide us through life.

You see, it works both ways. It's called human nature.

Canada Corner

"Posted by: Andrew Zalotocky | June 07, 2009 at 23:02

'Typical of leftists is the all-consuming desire to control the actions of others, as though they were the only ones with the intelligence to guide us through life.'

"Equally, typical of rightists is the all-consuming desire to control the actions of others, as though they were the only ones with the moral sense to guide us through life.

You see, it works both ways. It's called human nature.

Posted by: Geoffrey Falk | June 08, 2009 at 00:44""

Huh? That's one broad brush you're painting with.


Well, I can sort of agree with Geoffrey Falk - the leftists want to control our financial lives (taxation and consumption), while the rightists want to control the moral dimension (sex and drugs and gambling and liquor - all that "vice", you know). It is a hard choice between the two - do you want to give in to the religious zealots of the right or the PC zealots of the left?

These days, I am more afraid of the Green-left new-religion.

Annabelle Smith

George has been educated beyond his intelligence.



“4. Stop all this sanctimonious bitching and write something entertaining and informative instead. Then perhaps more people will want to buy our newspaper.”

Well, that’s not an entirely trivial point. The Guardian readership isn’t large enough to sustain the publication. It’s heavily subsidised by GMG’s less righteous titles. In 2006 the Guardian and Observer lost almost £50m and lost another £26m in 2007, with further losses expected. A cynic might say it’s glorified vanity publishing. Ditto the New Statesman, which actually sells around 15,000 copies.


I work in advertising. And I tell you, if what I did turned people into brainless zombies who just went out and bought stuff because my ads told them to... well, I'd be a very, very rich man. But, of course, advertising doesn't work like that. Something that the grown-ups among us understand.


I believe every word you say. Here’s my wallet.


It isn't just the enormous sense of entitlement, but the sheer ego. He, and others on the paper, really do believe they are cleverer than us and are there to save us from ourselves. There is no self-awareness or embarassment at all.

sackcloth and ashes

Of course, people living in societies without capitalist materialism live in happy, sociable communes based on mutual help and brotherhood. They all have full bellies and fulfilled lives. Just ask the North Koreans. Look how joyful and wonderful there lives are without all those nasty Nike adverts.

James S

"I am much more concerned about the false picture of the world conveyed by advertisements the newspapers carry." (Monbiot)

This from the man who says "flying across the Atlantic is now as unacceptable as child abuse". No false picture of the world there then. Does anyone at the Guardian actually read this stuff before it gets printed?

Horace Dunn


"Well, that’s not an entirely trivial point".

Indeed, it isn’t! I know that I adopted a facetious tone, but I was intent on making the serious point that you elaborated so well, with the statistics about the Guardian’s abysmal financial situation.

It seems to me that George should count himself lucky that, for the time being at least, he can carry on in his cushy, well-paid job despite the fact so very few people are interested in the “service” he provides, and even fewer are willing to pay for it.

On the other hand, imagine how upset Monbiot would be if the Guardian actually MADE money. How ghastly. How ... ugh ... commercial.


“Does anyone at the Guardian actually read this stuff before it gets printed?”

All things considered, you can understand the reluctance.



I suppose unearned money is so much more moral than the other kind.


The Nazi party grew, in part, out of the environmental movement in Germany between the wars. So why are we surprised when people like Mr Monbiot expresses a Facistic/ Nazi view?


Fascism is a government which coalesces around a single individual as the lynchpin of government and in which a form of state-controlled capitalism exists. I think that Monibot seems more of a communist with a cadre of technocrats like himself in charge of making 5-year plans and the like.

As to enviro-Nazism, I would think it had more to do with a view of returning to a simpler time and more "pure" living which was part of the National Socialist appeal. That sort of "return to nature" crap is one of the planks of the Green movement. Of the two, Greens or fascists, I'm not sure which I'd prefer- the one tells me what to do under threat of force, and the other tells me what to do for the good of the planet. But of course, if I can't be compelled to right action by an appeal to Mother Earth, out comes the truncheon. So I suppose I'd prefer rule by fascists. At least then the oppression is simpler.

sackcloth and ashes

'"I am much more concerned about the false picture of the world conveyed by advertisements the newspapers carry." (Monbiot)

This from the man who says "flying across the Atlantic is now as unacceptable as child abuse".'

Strange - how does he get to all his environmental conferences worldwide. Does he teleport?


“Does he teleport?”

Monbiot flies and drives “hypocritically or paradoxically, depending on your point of view.” Though I’d assumed he could travel in pure gaseous form.


"hypocritically or paradoxically, depending on your point of view."

I'll go with option 1.


“I’ll go with option 1.”

That is the obvious choice. If you own a car and drive while telling others not to, and if you travel the world telling others not to travel, the whiff of hypocrisy is hard to avoid. When Julie Burchill called him a hypocrite, Monbiot tried to excuse his incoherence by arguing that “hypocrisy is the gap between your aspirations and your actions. Greens have high aspirations - they want to live more ethically – and they will always fall short.”

But there’s a problem with this claim, several in fact. If you talk about flying using terms like “killing fields” and if you’re adamant that “flying across the Atlantic is now as unacceptable as child abuse” – if that’s what you really believe – then you shouldn’t be doing it at all, surely? Ever.

Unless, that is, you have a remarkably casual view of child abuse: “Well, I did a *bit* of child abusing after my exams, just to let my hair down, and you can’t help but do *some* child abusing over Christmas because, well, everyone else is doing it. But you shouldn’t be doing it every week because it’s really, really bad.”

john Kelly

Or to go more with Monbiot's own analogy: "I do a bit of child abuse, yeh, but only because it helps all the other children.

Horace Dunn

If "flying across the Atlantic is now as unacceptable as child abuse" does it therefore follow that child abuse is as unacceptable as transatlantic air travel?

James S

More Monbiot:

We've been "plundering the world" for 300 years – "pillaging the labour, wealth and resources of other countries". And that's why we're pissed off about MP's expenses and turning on New Labour. Who knew?


Yes, George is very big on this Sins-of-the-Father routine and his grasp of causality is faultless, I think you’ll agree. And, of course, our forefathers were the only players in history and thus uniquely evil. All trade is predation, especially when “we” do it. No other empires or opportunism took place, ever. Genealogical guilt is pretty much a Guardian staple, as is the presumptuous “we”. “We” did such-and-such, so “we” must wring our hands and stick pins into our eyes. It’s pathological narcissism.


I'm suprised no-one's picked up on yet,

"as it creates needs that did not exist before"

Advertising has never done this to me. It identifies a new way of satisfying an existing need ("New and Improved washing powder"), it may identify a need that was previously unsatisfied, but previously extant and acknowledged ("Watch cricket live from the West Indies"). It may identify needs which were unknown to me, but nonetheless pre-existing (...trouble thinking of an example, here...)

The point I'm making is that the needs existed beforehand, for me at any rate. The product, and the advertising to go with it, may answer the need with a greater or lesser degree of novelty.

Am I talking more nonsense than mon-biot?


“Am I talking more nonsense than mon-biot?”

Not at all. I think of advertising as by and large *defining* desires - bringing them into focus, giving them a particular shape; certainly moreso than creating them.


> It may identify needs which were unknown to me, but nonetheless pre-existing

Mobile phone! I thought before I had one, why do I need that? Now I get separation anxiety.


Like most of the crap in the world that people get paid to talk about, Monibot's "as it creates needs that did not exist before" contains a kernel of truth. Yes advertising helps create the planned obsolescence feedback loop that is modern society, but without it (advertising) we wouldn't be exposed to things which can make our lives better. The drawbacks are a culture where nothing is expected to last, a lot of effort being put into things which have little or no value (subjectively), and the elevation of those who have and spend money to the zenith of societal importance.

That being said, I prefer to have supermarket coupons and 50 kinds of headphones to choose from at the local electronics trough.


“Advertising has never done this to me.”

It’s an interesting issue, though Monbiot, as so often, doesn’t shed much light on it. He simply *asserts* that advertising “creates needs that did not exist before” and claims that this, somehow, makes us “atomised” and “grasping”. Exactly *how* advertising makes all of us so much more wicked than we otherwise would be isn’t made clear. And given the nature of his argument and his emphatic tone, it’s a strange detail to omit. (I say “all of us,” but obviously George is enlightened and immune. He’s clearly a much better person than the rabble he hopes to save.)

But so far as I can make out, my desire for a clean shirt has very little to do with adverts for detergent.

Horace Dunn

"But so far as I can make out, my desire for a clean shirt has very little to do with adverts for detergent"

Indeed, but I think George probably should have said that advertising creates "wants" rather than "needs". I'm sure that we've all had the experience of watching some luscious advertisement for chocolate (or whatever) and though "Oooh. I could just fancy one of those now". But the thing is, this doesn't happen all that often and when it does, one wonders who is to blame for such decadence - the chocolate manufacturer (whose raison d'etre is to produce and sell chocolate) or the viewer (whose lack of will-power makes him immediately head to the cupboard for a curly-wurly).

Incidentally, I wonder where George would draw the line, as far as advertising goes. Would he, for example, forbid a chemist shop from having a fascia board proclaiming that a chemist shop operate from that site? Perhaps not, but just think of all those people who would walk past and then suddenly stop and decide to go in to buy some aspirin against a future headache that might never arise.


“But the thing is, this doesn’t happen all that often and when it does, one wonders who is to blame for such decadence…”

Well, Monbiot claims that adverts “generate behavioural norms, telling us, in effect, that the goods and services which are destroying the biosphere are acceptable, even beneficial.” But setting aside the whole “destroying the biosphere” bit and the question of who gets to decide what’s “acceptable” in MonbiotWorld™, it seems to me the reverse is more convincing. Taken collectively, *customers* get to say what constitutes a behavioural norm, by using a given product or service - or not using it. Monbiot seems to believe that customers are by default passive victims, devoid of the autonomy and discrimination that he presumably feels he has.

Many arguments of this kind rail against capitalism or consumerism or advertising or whatever as if they make us a different animal. This claim is often presented as somehow self-evident. But maybe what’s being railed against is the nature of the beast itself.

Horace Dunn


Absolutely. There is a tendency of the governing classes (of all political persuasions, though I feel it is much more pronounced among leftists) to view us human beings as mere victims of our socio-economic circumstances. Like amoebas in a droplet of water which shy away from too much light or heat, or when acidic droplets are introduced, our behaviour is governed by varying positive and negative stimuli. But as you point out, George and co see themselves as “enlightened and immune”. It seems that it is only those of us outside the Islington-dinner-party nexus who are incapable of independent thought and discrimination and lack the strength to shoulder accountability.

In years to come, when Billy Bunter finds himself taken into hospital suffering from the crime of obesity, the police will hunt down the people who advertised the donuts to punish them for Billy’s overindulgence.


Monbiot has a terminal case of liberal self-loathing. Happily he does all of my self-loathing so that I don't have to.


He's an elitist self-loathing hypocrite but there's nothing liberal about Monbiot.


“…there’s nothing liberal about Monbiot.”

The very idea of liberalism seems to offend him. Disgust him, even. (By “liberalism” I mean actual *classical* liberalism, the favouring of individualism, freedom, etc, not the leftist perversion of the term.) Monbiot described his eco-evangelism as “a campaign not for abundance but for austerity… a campaign not for more freedom but for less… a campaign not just against other people, but against ourselves.”

Make of that what you will. To me, that smells like psychodrama.

Horace Dunn

"Make of that what you will. To me, that smells like psychodrama."

It smells to me like the battle anthem for the Daleks' invasion of Earth.


David, I very much like your analysis of the relationship between advertising and desire. Ads help us to know what we want, or at least to give our desire form. The product being advertised may not be quite what we want (as if our desire did come down to any particular thing), but for lack of a better option, it must do. Pseudo-ascetics like Monbiot may be scandalized by this gap; they assume the ideal object of our desires must conform to their sense of the good, although they fail to make a case that competes with a chocolate bar, a video game, a holiday etc. -- and they are angered by their impotence. Or perhaps they are horrified by the desire itself, in that it is an expression of individuality (even when -- or most when -- it is satisfied by commodities available to all), and it often serves no purpose but playfulness.


"Mobile phone! I thought before I had one, why do I need that? Now I get separation anxiety."

I was thinking that, or cars, having spent 10 adult years tethered to public transport. But that's possession, not advertising, and hence not applicable.

"Indeed, but I think George probably should have said that advertising creates "wants" rather than "needs"

My point was that advertising highlights a means or method of satisfying a pre-existing need/want.

"...but for lack of a better option, it must do."

I wouldn't be so negative here. Good enough now is ofter preferable to perfect later.

Mopping up finished.

Given that advertisements give you knowledge of products, what's the difference, from a moral perspective, of banning you from information about a product, and banning you from owning the product itself?

David Gillies

Monbiot is sui generis, but only inasmuch as he is an extreme outlier on that ghastly strain of modern excrescences: the Trendy Vicar with jackboots underneath his cassock. He'd have been right at home in the Deutsche Evangelische Kirche during the 30's (foes of the Nazis more from a turf-war perspective rather than any overriding ideological antagonism).


“Monbiot is sui generis…”

What’s remarkable is how commonplace Monbiot’s line in hyperbole is. Yes, he sounds unhinged with his blather about “the blackened waste of consumer frenzy,” etc; but quite a few of his Guardian colleagues make very similar noises. The anhedonic hypocrite Oliver James springs to mind. Or Madeleine Bunting, who frets about “hyper-frantic consumerism” and “our preoccupation with things; our ever more desperate dependence on stimulants from alcohol to porn.”

It’s hard to gauge extremism in such company.

David Gillies

Bunting and James are crashingly monomaniacal (and strike one as highly unpleasant to boot), but for utter, unalloyed hair-shirted Tartuffery, old Georges is the cynosure, the Moonbat di tutti Moonbatti. At least with the former I feel there might be some last crevice of sense into which one could hammer a piton on which to hang a rational counter-argument, but the edifice of Monbiot's lunacy rises vast and sheer, entirely unblemished by reason.


An excellent piece. Thanks very much for this.

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