Avert Your Eyes
June 07, 2009
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.