How advertising normalises over-consumption

I don’t watch much television on commercial channels these days, but every once in a while there is something that my wife and I will tune into. The Great British Bake Off is one such programme, and as it is on Channel 4, it now comes with a liberal dusting of adverts.

There was one advert that particularly got up my nose. It shows a woman getting out of a car in new shoes, dress and sunglasses. It pans back to reveal her neighbours either side, three women on three driveways, all in new outfits. They open their car boots to reveal that they are stuffed with apparent bargains. “And to think I only went out for the weekly shop” says the voiceover, and the brand pops up for Fashion at Tesco.

This same advert ran every ten minutes, so my family saw it multiple times. And it’s message is overt: buying a car load of clothes you didn’t need is glamorous and to be celebrated.

Because the voiceover says that the characters only went out for the weekly shop, then they are making a virtue of the fact that none of these new clothes were necessary. They didn’t need them. But they were presumably so cheap that they just had to buy them. The outfits practically jumped into the trolley and wheeled themselves through the checkout and back to the waiting SUV.

Any conscious shopper would of course know that there is a reason why cheap fashion is cheap. The whole industry relies on paying poverty wages to garment workers in poorer countries. It relies on unsustainable production of cotton, and pays nothing for the long-term damage of synthetic fabrics that aren’t biodegradeable. The social and environmental costs are shuttled elsewhere, out of sight and out of mind, in order to offer the final customer all of the glamour and none of the responsibility.

All of this is hidden in the advert. We are presented only with the illusion of abundance and novelty. And look – all three neighbours have done it! Everybody is buying clothes by the ton at Tesco when they only went in for a loaf of bread!

And yet, as a Christian, the words of James 5:4 come to mind: “Listen! Hear the cries of the field workers whom you have cheated of their pay. The wages you held back cry out against you.”

In millions of homes across the land, I expect Tesco’s fast fashion advert played out without comment, a quiet innoculation against taking responsibility for your shopping habits.

Not in mine. I alerted my children to the messages of the advert – the normalising of driving to the shops, the gentle reinforcing of the weekly shop and Tesco as the place for it, the idea of cheap fashion from the supermarket, to buying things you don’t need, and to flaunting new things as aspirational. Being 7 and 9 and easily impressionable, they had taken to howling mockery at the TV by the time the advert rolled for the fourth of fifth time. That may not be an entirely appropriate response, but I suspect they were over-excited by the quantity of cake on display.

We should interrogate the adverts we see. They are not benign, and some of them should be actively resisted. What have you seen recently that works against a fair and sustainable future? And how to we push back against such adverts?

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