The truth about advertising: are ads a violation of our human rights?

What happens when Ronaldo removes two Coca-Cola bottles during a Euro 2020 press conference and then holds up a bottle of water, appearing to encourage people to drink that instead?

Well, a lot of furore followed by reports that $4 billion was immediately wiped off Coca-Cola’s market value.

This move demonstrates the power of celebrity endorsement and clever advertising.

Advertising: At What Cost?

In serendipitous timing, a new report At what cost?, explores the impacts of advertising and consumerism on our well-being. It asks:

“What happens when advertisers install a billboard poster idolising a skinny waist and perfect skin in order to sell clothes made in sweatshops for poverty wages?”

We all know the answer to that one, too. We’re living it right now.

I appreciate the art of good marketing. You have to hand it to Coca-Cola, who manage to associate their nutritionally deficient drink with some of the greatest athletes in the world.

In a similar vein, how can you not give a nod of appreciation to the guy (Edward Bernays) who, once upon a time, sold cigarettes to women by calling them “Torches of Freedom”? It’s brilliant.

But, just imagine what could be achieved if we used these powers for good rather than to sell… cancer?

For ethical reasons, at Live Frankly we’re ad-free*.

According to the report, this means we are missing out on earning a slice of the staggering $557.3 billion that was spent, globally, on advertising in 2020.

To put this into context, the UN reports that global demand for humanitarian assistance was $40 billion last year. Theoretically, if every brand cut their spend by an average of just 7 per cent, their money could have footed the bill. And they would have got free PR for doing so, so that’s surely a win-win.**

The truth about advertising: the problem with ads

Targeted online advertising – you know, those ads that pop up that seem to sell exactly what you’ve been thinking about purchasing for a while – is perhaps the most controversial ad issue of our time. It’s linked to the rise in fake news, fuelling surveillance capitalism (the commodity for sale is personal data), and normalising privacy breaches through pervasive tracking and data-mining.

But, advertising doesn’t stop when you stop scrolling on Insta, or go to the toilet during a TV ad-break. As the Ronaldo story shows, it’s part of the programming. Heineken logos, among others, are behind him as he holds up his water bottle and declares “Agua!” in Portuguese.

The report highlights that ads are not only on billboards and in shop windows. There are concerns about corporations using schools to increase their share of a profitable market by sending free menstruation health samples to schools, along with lesson plans, to market to a captive audience.

Yes, advertising is overtly in your newspaper in the form of ads. But, it’s also covertly in your news feed, as the report explains:

“The dependency of print and audiovisual media on advertising revenue can result in wide self-censorship of journalists and media owners, having a significant impact on editorial content and cultural programming.”

“Misleading advertising violates our right to freedom of information and expression; subconscious manipulation by adverts denies our right to freedom of thought…”

At what cost?

Advertising and violation of human rights

There is a significant negative relationship between a country’s advertising spend and its citizens’ happiness, according to the report. When advertisers pour money into a country, we also see lower well-being for the people living there.

“Commercial messaging has the potential to deeply influence the philosophical beliefs of people and their aspirations, as well as cultural values and practices, from food consumption models to burial rituals, including tastes and beauty canons.”

“Global advertising campaigns promoting one single advertising message for all countries have a detrimental impact on cultural diversity.”

“You forced your civilisation upon us and now look where we are: global pandemic, climate crisis, species extinction and, driving it all, widespread spiritual poverty.”

Nemonte Nenquimo, cofounder of the
Indigenous-led non-profit organisation Ceibo Alliance, Ecuador

This is not only irresponsible, it violates the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as enshrined by law.

Misleading advertising violates our right to freedom of information and expression; subconscious manipulation by adverts denies our right to freedom of thought; advertising by fast fashion brands disregards our right to freedom from slavery; and promoting excessive consumption, which worsens climate change and pollution infringes our right to a sustainable environment.

Adverts tear us down by appealing to our insecurities and our need for approval, security and social status. Advertisers have also clocked on to our desire to be “good”. Now they’re selling us the products, such as (supposedly) sustainable fashion, to build us back up, too.

The truth about advertising: Piccadilly Circus bill boards
Image: Pexels | Negative Space

The truth about advertising in the UK

So, what does advertising look like here in the UK?

Well, last year the UK’s total advertising spend fell by £3.6 billion to around £21.5 billion, due to COVID-19.

The report states that these “stark” UK figures prompted the Advertising Association to call for a tax incentive scheme for advertising and marketing services with the aim of selling more shit (we paraphrase) and stimulating the wider economy.

Crucially, this misses looking at the wider picture, as we’ve summarised above and 109 pages of the report demonstrate.

So, we all know what happens when advertisers install a billboard poster idolising a skinny waist and perfect skin in order to sell clothes made in sweatshops for poverty wages.

The question is what happens if we uninstall those billboards or use them to promote more meaningful ideas?

The other question is, what if more celebrities refused to endorse brands they didn’t believe in for money? Or if Ronaldo asked his major sponsors, Nike, to double-check the issues of modern slavery in their supply chain?

I’d love to find out. Wouldn’t you?


*We’re not totally ad-free because we do promote brands that we love. We maintain, these brands are good for people and planet. But, any advertiser worth their salt would say the same thing about the crap they peddle. So, judge for yourself.

**This isn’t quite true. We also need to work to change the systems that lead to the need for humanitarian aid in the first place, including exploitation of people and the planet. i.e. we also need these brands to stop being so destructive in their practices. But, we won’t split hairs about every point we make.

Report and citations: Elizabeth Harrop, At What Cost? The impacts of advertising and consumerism on human, community and planetary well-being. How to use international law to challenge human rights violations and climate impacts, caused by excessive consumption and advertising. Adfree Cities. Bristol, UK. 2021.

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Article updated: Friday 18 June 2021

About the author

Lizzie Rivera

Lizzie Rivera

Lizzie Rivera is the founder and chief purpose officer at Live Frankly. She has been writing for mainstream publications for 10 years, specialising in sustainability and ethics since 2014.


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