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Last October 28th and 29th, 25 citizens of the world gathered at the headquarter of the United Nations to discuss how advertising and marketing impact our cultural rights. This consultation, organized by the special rapporteur in the field of cultural rights, Mrs. Farida Shaheed, aimed at giving a serie of recommendations to the states. Four sessions covered the major topics: cultural diversity and individual freedom, cultural and symbolic landscapes, education and children, and finally artistic freedom and right to access and enjoy the Arts. Here is a summary of the two first sessions. I will post the two others soon.

Cultural diversity and the right of people to choose and express their own identity, including cultural practices and opinions. 

“Everyone, as a member of society, has the right to social security and is entitled to realization, through national effort and international co-operation and in accordance with the organization and resources of each State, of the economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for his dignity and the free development of his personality.”

Article 22 of the Universal Declaration of the Human Rights

This first session started by the impact of advertising in the media. A first phenomenon is the franchising of the traditional media. It leads to an uniformity of the information and a censorship of independent sources. I already pointed out this issue in my TEDx talk, especially with the convergence of few media groups owning indirectly the whole media landscape. More than creating a uniform cultural landscape, this phenomenon also induces a form social exclusion where parts of the population such as the elderly or lowest income class do not have content for them and thus must comply to the norm. Paradoxically, the new social media use personalized advertising, which at contrary target precisely the profile of the users. Behind an artificial diversity, this techniques empowered marketing strategies to steer people toward a specific brand, leading in a different manner to the uniformization of social norms. But personalized advertising also raises the problem of privacy. When user data are processed for marketing purpose, we are facing an instrumentalization of human subjects’ experimentation: people are filling surveys without even noticing them. Such massive processing of data is usually controlled in scientific research. Scientists need to follow ethical guidelines, both at the local level with Institutional review board (IRB) and at the global level with the international Convention of Helsinki.

The question of research in advertising and marketing industry is even more striking when it comes to the neuromarketing (for more information, see my previous post). Indeed, if neuromarketing is quite handwavy for the moment, it shows how the advertising industry do not hesitate to steal any knowledge and tool from Science for making profit, and so without any ethical control. The question of regulation is complex. We are indeed dealing with a sort no-man’s land in-between national and international laws, and trade treaties. The challenge for the UN is to provide recommendations to the states to guarantee ethical practices, non-infringement of basics human rights, and economical feasibility. But we are just seeing the tip of the iceberg.

Cultural and symbolic landscape: the problem of governance in public spaces

They live

They live, by John Carpenter, just celebrated its 25th anniversary.

In the second session, we moved to the question of cultural landscape. The case of Poland was first evoked. This country passed suddenly from no advertising at all during communism to totally unregulated advertising industry with capitalism. Billboard and banners spread everywhere, devastating the cultural landscape. This point out again the issue of regulation and planning. But a deeper question also arises: What is a public space or a landscape?

A second intervention follows up on regulation of advertising in public space. The documentary “This space available” was taken as an example to draw the kafkaesque portrait of billboard companies. More than depicting the unethical dimension of their business models, the movie asks who has a voice in public space? Citizens, especially in urban environment, are passively watching their landscape. While the design community more and more emphasize the key role of interaction, the citizen have lost their agency in the public space. On the other side, corporations with “blank faces” can sculpt the environment with very weak regulations and often no enforcement in cases of illegal practice (see video below). As one person summarized: “we are dealing here with a cultural organized crime.”


Steve Lambert from the movie This space available by Gwénaëlle Gobé (both were participants in the consultation)

The huge problem is that our environment shapes us. As Winston Churchill said: “We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.” In cities, billboards have taken such an importance in the landscape, that they potentially affect us… it is even their primary purpose. We wrote a column in the French newspaper le Monde about advertising about this issue. We then discussed how most of the advertising are calibrated to target primary drive and brain reward systems. The method is mainly supported by exposition and repetition. You see from 60 up to 4000 ads per day if you live in a city. The point is that the brain automatically and unconsciously process salient features during daily habitual navigation. The recent use of video screens is even more efficient since it increase saliency and thus attraction of attention.

All these stimulation have an impact on the average cognitive load in urban environment, leading to stress and in some case disorientation. But another key point raised is the transmission of unconscious messages. As Edward Bernays theorized advertising and propaganda, democracy appeared as a battle of ideas. In this battle, the control of information is the strongest weapon and form of control. In front of this asymmetry of means, there are four kinds of response: regulation (but it needs enforcement and this is not the case), counterattack—with nudge for instance (but this increase even more the cognitive load and could lead to a “foot in the door strategy” from the advertising industry), technological defense as with the add Art Firefox extension, which replaces on the internet ads with pieces of Art (but this is more complex in outdoor environment), and self-defense through education. The third session showed that this last solution is far from being in place…

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