The environmental impacts of corporate advertising

By Diana Ivanova1,2 and Loup Suja-Thauvin2

The problem

It is not hard to find reasons to dislike some forms of advertising. Among other things, advertising impacts communities by:

Importantly, advertising normalises overconsumption on a planet that has already been depleted and impoverished by uncapped resource extraction, waste and climate change in the aim of profits. Advertising creates desires that are disconnected from human need and true wellbeing. Ads rarely reflect functional uses of a product and usually focus on changing perceptions around what it means to be successful, beautiful, accepted and happy. Yet, we now more than ever need to reflect on what energy and consumption contributes directly to our human needs and a good life, and what does not. 

While it is widely accepted that advertising has a huge effect on how we use resources, it is very challenging to quantify those impacts. Here we estimate the electricity use of outdoors ads infrastructure in the UK. Understanding those impacts is an important step to lowering the energy demand of our communities and living well within planetary boundaries.

The energy use behind outdoors advertising in the UK

Advertising in its various forms uses energy to spread a message. Whether it is a TV or a radio ad, a billboard or an online pop-up, ads need energy to run on various devices. We find that a single digital billboard may use as much energy as 37 UK homes. In addition, there is the energy used in the manufacturing and distribution of ad infrastructure and printed materials. There is also the energy needed to supply and use the products and services that ads encourage. In an energy world still largely reliant on fossil fuels, advertising comes at a high carbon cost.

In most UK cities, it is common to see outdoor advertising on digital billboards, bus stops and shopping centres with images of anything from fast food to automobiles. UK cities are becoming especially saturated, with more than 100,000 outdoors advertising infrastructures across the country. That includes digital and paper billboards, bus stops, phone boxes and others. Based on this estimate, we calculate that in 2020 outdoors advertising used between 84 and 451 GWh of electricity in the UK. For an average household size of 2.3 persons per household, the amount of electricity that outdoors advertising uses directly is equivalent to the home electricity use of 68,000-362,000 UK residents. For an average emission factor of 0.309 kgCO2-equivalents per kWh, this amounts to between 26 and 139 thousand tonnes of CO2-equivalents.

The following table gives an estimation for other major British cities.More about the data, assumptions and method can be found here.

City Number of infrastructures Consumption (GWh/year) Home electricity use (equivalent in number of UK residents)
London 14,558 24 – 84 19,000 – 67,000
Greater Manchester 6,042 4.1 – 20 3,300 – 16,000
Birmingham 5,062 3.2 – 14 2,600 – 12,000
Glasgow 2,262 1.6 – 8.0 1,300 – 6,500
Leeds 2,057 1.5 – 6.7 1,200 – 5,400
Bristol 1,940 1.2 – 5.7 990 – 4,600
Cardiff 1,393 0.7 – 3.7 576 – 2,900
Total UK 107,637 84- 451 68,000-362,000

This only includes the electricity for the lighting and changing of images, not that embodied in the materials and infrastructure or the consumption that advertising creates. Furthermore, calculations are based on numbers from a database, which excludes a lot of the outdoors advertising in the cities.  For example, in Leeds, we find that about half of the infrastructure is missing. Therefore, we can expect that all energy figures are grossly understated, and that the true energy costs are several times higher. Even so, the calculated amount of energy that goes into running all of the ads in the UK is enormous and highlights advertising as an important area for reducing energy demand and carbon emissions. 

Where do we go from here?

The good news is that there is a lot that communities can do to reclaim public spaces with the aim of happier lives and stronger communities. We highlight several core principles that will be helpful in managing environmental impacts from advertising and increasing public engagement with our shared spaces. The principles are entirely feasible provided that there is political and social will.

  1. We need to democratise the urban landscape

The general public cannot turn off or easily escape outdoors advertising even if it so wishes. Yet, cities increasingly rely on advertising funds for the provision of basic urban infrastructure such as bus shelters, street signs and public internet access. These arrangements, while may seem beneficial, come with a myriad of hidden social and environmental costs that society pays for. Advertising displays are increasingly monopolising our public spaces at the expense of reduced non-commercial access and diversity for the locals. Some areas, particularly less wealthy ones, may suffer more from this public space monopoly, further entrenching social inequalities in the cities. 

Strategies for democratising public space could include restricting the space for corporate advertising and allowing for a proportion of non-commercial access to outdoor media or commercial community notices and public artworks. Local authorities may also tax the revenue raised through advertising, which could be used to provide public access. City planning should also explicitly consider how the capacity of different publics to access the outdoor media landscape and space changes.

  1. We need to get rid of the most harmful advertising

Not all products that are advertised are equal. Advertising of some products – such as cigarettes and fast food – is already restricted in some areas to ensure the safety of children and adults who are exposed to the messages. Banning advertising of carbon and energy intensive products and activities such as fossil fuels, SUVs and frequent flights can have a great effect on the social norms, practices and consumption patterns surrounding these activities. For example, Amsterdam wants to become the first city in the world to ban fossil fuel advertising

We need to consider the social and environmental impacts of advertising from a system perspective. How is the normalisation and encouragement of problematic practices through advertising considered? Currently planning officers may reject outdoors corporate advertising based on road safety and amenities concerns, but they do not make climate and energy considerations. They also do not necessarily consider the impacts on social equality, communities and well-being. The lawfulness of advertising should be scrutinised against these wider social and environmental concerns.

Greenwashing and spreading of miscommunication through advertising should also be a major concern as it may hamper local actions for climate neutrality and community well-being. Encouraging a public debate and transparency in advertising  will support city planners and regulators in their judgements. 

  1. We need to reduce the scale of advertising altogether

Advertising provision in the cities is self-interested and for-profit and at best only partly considers the broader social and environmental issues in the city. Prioritising the provision of information in advertising and establishing stricter criteria to allow advertising in public spaces is key to reduce growth dependence and make cities more livable and resilient. Moving away from advertising is necessary to build resilience as it will allow a shift away from damaging activities and will support the development of alternative, solidarity society and use of public space.

  1. Get involved in the movement

AdBlock Leeds, as a part of a larger Adfree Cities network in the UK, holds corporate advertising in the city accountable for the hidden costs associated with it. Our vision is one of happier lives and stronger communities and we welcome everyone who shares it. Social movements are powerful initiators of change, so if you are concerned about the amount of advertising in your city, join or start such a group.

Together, let’s reclaim our public spaces!

This piece was updated on 5 April 2021 to make minor corrections to figures

1 School of Earth and Environment, University of Leeds

2 AdBlock Leeds, https://adblockleeds.wordpress.com/

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