How ad platforms like Facebook, Google, and others drive climate change.

Abdul Semakula
9 min readJun 21, 2022

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Perhaps the most successful driver of household or lifestyle carbon emissions is also the most ignored — and for good reason — there’s no direct link to emissions. This is its strength. Because then, efforts to cut lifestyle emissions are focused on direct causal links — while the indirect but aggressive instigator inspires more high-emitting markets and lifestyles.

I’m talking about the aggressive marketing industry that influences us to buy not from internal need but from external stimuli that manipulate our minds and emotions.

Emotional marketing techniques from marketing gurus.

The lucrative marketing industry operates a powerful ecosystem overflooded with millions of well-paid players at different layers of the attention-economy demand and supply. Today, it has reinvented itself with AI and Machine Learning to maximise sales. It runs a sophisticated Realtime Bidding System (RBT) that feeds off personal data to sell attention to the highest bidder in realtime. Here’s an example;

Alice, a 35-year-old mom, with an annual income of $135,000 and loves celebrity x, is loading a page titled “5 tips for planning a memorable holiday.’ The RBT sends this personal-data profile to bidding advertisers to buy Alice’s attention. And the winner is — a car seller. Alice instantly sees a Hollywood-style car ad featuring celebrity x and a new model of the brand she loves, with a one-time offer, and limited sales. Although Alice bought her second car last year and it is in good condition, this is a deal too good to pass — she instantly makes a deposit.

The likelihood that you will buy (irrespective of need) has never been more accurate — yet the RBT would enjoy plausible deniability in this decision — this passes as Alice’s free choice.

A recent survey by Clutch.co found that, like Alice, adverts influenced 90% of consumers to make a purchase. The aggressive marketing system has led to a spike in;

- Impulse Purchases: — unplanned purchases where for example, 87% of Americans buy products they could do comfortably well without; (Clinton Amos et al, A meta-analysis of consumer impulse buying)

- Stress Purchases: — people buying products just to momentarily relieve stress, then buy again, and again when stress reappears; “52% of respondents said they have impulsively shopped to deal with feelings of stress, anxiety or depression”

- Compulsive Shopping Disorder: — buying for buying’s sake — these people have suitcases of unopened products. 74% of the affected 6% Americans said that they felt out of control while shopping. (Lorrin M et al. Estimated Prevalence of Compulsive Buying Behavior in the United States.)

INEFFICIENCY OF THE AGGRESSIVE MARKETING MODEL

The key denominator in this unsustainable phenomenon is that people are induced to buy products they don’t really need. In the above example, Alice was looking for information but she ended up buying a car she never needed.

There’s limited data on the negative impacts of this but a recent survey by CreditKarma says 83% of ‘stress purchasers’ regretted their purchases.

If we merge this and the above survey — of 90% buying because of ads, it could give the indication that only 7% of people whose purchases were influenced by ads, really needed the product.

You could paraphrase that as; marketing is only 7% efficient at meeting people’s needs and 83% efficient at creating artificial demand just to convert sales. This is not to say that the bought products were all useless, rather, buyers could have done comfortably well without them — but the marketing system created ‘artificial need’ just to make a sale. Think fast fashion, travel, fast foods, electronics, automobile, FMCG, etc.

And this is the deeper problem here — the aggressive marketing system obsessively measures success by the number of people it pushes through the sales funnel, not the number of people whose ‘real needs’ it connects to products.

IMPACT ON EMISSIONS

The impact of this inefficiency is colossal in terms of carbon emissions and inequality. The marketing ecosystem is essentially an economic engine that distributes material needs — in form of products. By focusing on increasing sales for producers and not meeting ‘real needs’ for consumers, it incentivises overproduction to meet both the ‘artificial need’ and ‘real need’.

This inefficient allocation of products or material needs means many households or persons own material resources they don’t use or need at the expense of those who really need them. It also means we use more materials than we need and thus emit more carbon than we should — largely because of the ‘artificial needs’ created by the aggressive marketing ecosystem’s manipulative techniques.

I won’t paraphrase economic anthropologist, Jason Hickel, he puts more flesh to this with more clarity, “Right now, the world economy uses 100 billion tons of resources per year (i.e., materials processed into tangible goods, buildings and infrastructure). That’s about 13 tons per person on average, but it is highly unequal: in low and lower-middle income countries it’s about 2 tons, and in high-income countries it’s a staggering 28 tons. Research in industrial ecology indicates that high standards of well-being can be achieved with about 6–8 tons per person. In other words, the global economy presently uses twice as much resources as would be required to deliver good lives for all.

We see the same thing when it comes to energy. The world economy presently uses 400 EJ of energy per year, or 53 GJ per person on average (again, highly unequal between North and South). Recent research shows that we could deliver high standards of welfare for all, with universal healthcare, education, housing, transportation, computing, etc, with as little as 15 GJ per capita. Even if we raise that figure by 75% to be generous it still amounts to a global total of only 26 GJ. In other words, we presently use more than double the energy that is required to deliver good lives for everyone.

When we look at the world in terms of real resources and energy (i.e., the stuff of provisioning), it becomes clear that there is no scarcity at all. The problem isn’t that there’s not enough, the problem, again, is that it is maldistributed. A huge chunk of global commodity production is totally irrelevant to human needs and well-being. Consider all the resources and energy that are mobilized for the sake of fast fashion, throwaway gadgets, single-use stadiums, SUVs, bottled water, cruise ships, and the military-industrial complex. Consider the scale of needless consumption that is stimulated by manipulative advertising schemes, or enforced by planned obsolescence. Consider the quantity of private cars that people have been forced to buy because the fossil fuel industry and automobile manufacturers have lobbied so aggressively against public transportation. Consider that the beef industry alone uses nearly 60% of the world’s agricultural land, to produce only 2% of global calories.”

What is not yet well studied is how much the aggressive marketing ecosystem contributes to global emissions, but it is clear impulse purchases mean more material extraction, more fossil energy use, more transport routes (some of which are returns because people bought products they don’t want).

To put the impact of marketing in context, let’s crudely attempt to link ad impressions to Product Carbon Footprints (PCF), using available surveys and data from marketing platforms and PCF databases.

Estimates say, although he notices less than 100, the average American is exposed to over 3000 impressions of ads a day. YouTube alone says (in 2016) it served over 150 billion ad impressions per day — adjust that to other traditional and digital channels today and you have a conservative 1 trillion ad impressions per day.

At an average PCF of 1.5Kg of carbon, that 1 trillion ad impressions per day result in over 100 million tons of wasted, maldistributed, or avoidable PCF per day that comes as a result of marketing that inspires impulse purchases and regrettable stress purchases.

Here is a crude estimation by selected ad platforms. Estimations are from publicly available Digital ad market share, Click-Through Rates, Cost Per Mille, Conversion Rate, and the surveys above.

NB. This could use more accurate data from reports that require subscription.

NB. If the figures look outrageous compared to daily/annual emissions, remember PCF is not to be confused with daily . If I buy a laptop (avg PCF = 331Kgs) today, it doesn’t mean the 331Kgs of CO2 is released today. Rather, its PCF has been accumulating over a span of years from mining, manufacturing its parts, assembling, and transporting it to the counter.

Most of the avoidable PCF incited by aggressive marketing ends up in landfills. e.g. “Less than 1 % of used clothing is recycled into new garments. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation estimates that every year some USD 500 billion in value is lost due to clothing that is barely worn, not donated, recycled, or ends up in a landfill.” World Bank

At the personal level, attachment to material possessions as instigated by the aggressive marketing ecosystem increases the risk of mental illnesses like stress and depression — for both the haves and have-nots.

However, the worst impact of the aggressive marketing model is seen in hijacking human agency. It has taken over the power of choice from citizens. It decides whether and when to buy, what to buy and even how to buy, and from who.

Like Alice might believe she bought from internal need, many people believe their purchases are from their free will, yet their will is externally manipulated by the marketing system.

The marketing system hijacks our agency, which is the fact that the future is shaped by our collective choices and actions. In effect, we have delegated the future of life on earth to a system obsessed with pushing people through the sales funnel as opposed to meeting real needs for citizens.

While businesses still need to connect to customers and citizens still need to connect to products, what is obvious is — the current marketing model is not only inefficient at meeting real needs but also fuels inequality and emissions and is unhealthy.

A SHIFT TO SUSTAINABLE MARKETING IS POSSIBLE

The solution might be hard but not trying alternatives allows a system that fuels emissions at exponential rates to grow even faster — yet an alternative has the potential to shift the entire industry towards sustainability.

A few years ago, Adverts were annoyingly all over the web. A small company in Germany built a product called AdBlockerPlus to block pervasive annoying ads. It invited a fierce war with ad platforms like Facebook. For years the two exchanged technical blows — each blocking the other by updating their algorithms to bypass the other’s blockade. As if that wasn’t enough — AdBlockerPlus endured a smear campaign, legal battles, and at worst their offices literally attacked. But in the end, Facebook gave up, and now the billion-dollar marketing industry advocates for ‘ethical ads’ — a term that was coined by AdBlockerPlus.

But ethical ads are highly subjective and majority still influence millions into impulse buys, stress buys, and shopping addictions. A new and more sustainable alternative would connect people to products to meet internal needs or real need as opposed to artificial need — and it’s necessary and not impossible.

It can include features like letting citizens search products they need as opposed to placing emotionally persuasive ads in their eyeballs > brains > souls, it can include behavioural change prompts at checkout — just to affirm you really need the product you are buying, leaving products in a cart for 48 hours for impulses to cool down, it can also include among many others availing (even the most basic) information about the impact of a product on nature and society so that consumers choose products that balance personal needs with common needs.

Demanding Change

Doctors take the Hippocratic Oath to always uphold ethical standards while executing their services — specifically ‘not to harm or do injustice’ to people and respect their information and privacy.

Businesses in general start with great purposes and visions to offer important services for our survival and progress but as they grow, profit becomes their purpose.

Is it too much to ask of them to uphold similar ethical standards as doctors, or is it too much to ask of them to not make our souls unjust — by manipulating our emotions to maximise profit while increasing global warming and other injustices?

Is it too much to demand corporations exercise leadership over their appetite for profit and remain true to their original purposes?

Governments aren’t about to venture into regulating the aggressive marketing sector — at least not at the required level, we can self-organise to demand change to more sustainable marketing.

This is also an opportunity for forward-thinking entrepreneurs to build models that make this toxic one obsolete.

We have an economic system that connects us to ‘artificial needs’. We think we do, but we barely choose the products we buy or even whether to buy or not — marketing gurus do — for the most part. Until we disconnect ourselves from ad-funded artificial needs or self-organise to demand change, sustainability might be a mirage.

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Abdul Semakula

Systems Innovator co-creating bottom-up a distributive & regenerative future at https://opencollective.com/nvc