Deceptive Advertising Normalizes Addiction

There is a very fine line between puffed-up claims and outright false, or deceptive, advertising. Though in most countries, advertising law protects consumers from intentionally confusing, misleading or untrue statements, there are many ways to skirt the regulations. While not illegal, many advertising practices would certainly qualify as unethical: hidden fees for products and services – prices marked with an asterisk are usually a good indicator that you will not be getting the exact advertised item at the listed price; misleading claims, that are not outright lies; ambiguous photography – such as realtors or hotel management using angles and tricks of the light to make rooms appear larger.

Worse than that, though, are marketing campaigns that fail to mention the dangers of addiction, or that attempt to normalize risky behaviours. In North America, prescription drug advertising must include warnings about any side effects or potential for addiction. Most alcohol promotions also ask the consumer to use good judgement, drink responsibly, and to not drink and drive. Some casino and lottery commercials remind the viewer that the odds are not in their favour and to exercise caution when gambling. But what if the leading coffee shops had to include warnings in their marketing material about the dangers of caffeine consumption? What if fast food restaurants had to disclose that their products can be highly addictive and contribute to obesity and poor health?

Commercial advertising is often harmful and though some say that advertising is merely reflecting us back to ourselves and giving us what we want, it does not really give us the intangible goods such as love, community, self-esteem, and friendship, that it uses to sell us tangible, material ones (TR Piety, 2001). And when the advertiser cannot, with 100% certainty, predict who will be viewing their commercials – or worse yet, when minors are specifically targeted by deceptive advertising – our youth are receiving mixed messages. They might be told outright to “just say no” to drugs, but are still bombarded by cigarette, alcohol and prescription drug advertising depicting attractive people living glamourous lives.

We are being sold commodities as surrogates to fill the perceived voids in our lives which encourages an addict mentality. Both the psychology of commercial advertising and marketing and the psychology of addiction appear to be characterized by denial, escapism, narcissism, isolation, insatiability, impatience, and diminished sensitivity; and while advertising appeals to these impulses, addiction is marked by them. (TR Piety, 2001) And though we know that commercial advertising depicts false situations realistically, it’s hard not to fall victim to the temptation posed by the lifestyle they project.

“Everyone Is Doing It!”

“Everyone else is doing it!” Does that sound familiar? A phrase that hearkens back to grade school days, or even beyond: if all my friends are doing something, why can’t I? “Jimmy’s Mom lets him eat candy every day!”; “If all the cool kids are seeing that R-rated movie, why shouldn’t I?”; “Everyone in my grade has already tried drinking and drugs except me!”; “I must be the only virgin left in college”; and the lists goes on and on. Peer pressure, or even the appearance of it, can be a powerful thing. And while society is fairly well equipped to handle peer pressure in childhood and adolescence, we may not know how to deal so well with “Everyone is doing it” as adults.

It is a harmful mindset – one in which risky behaviours like using drugs, gambling, or flirting with the law, are made to seem more socially acceptable as it’s implied that everyone is already doing it. The danger is even greater for young adults – in addition to navigating such difficulties as discovering their identities and establishing their adult lives and relationships, their actual physiology also puts them at risk as, in late adolescence and early adulthood, brain chemistry is quite susceptible to the social rewards that accompany risky behaviour (Webber, Soder, Potts, Park, and Bornolova, 2017). We have intrinsic motives for wishing to conform to our peers: we seek to avoid rejection and be accepted by the members of our social group, we’re creating or maintaining our image, or aligning ourselves with those we feel have higher status (Fishbach & Tu, 2016; Nail, MacDonald, & Levy, 2000). If our social identity defines who we are, then we might feel more inclined to imitate the behaviour of someone we seek to emulate.

Advertisers use this desire to belong in order to sell – whether it be alcohol, food, clothing, vacations, gaming, or any other risky choice – in the same way a drug dealer would pressure a high-schooler to try their product. Even though the adult approach is far more polished, we shouldn’t be taken in by such schoolyard tactics as peer pressure: “Everyone is doing it!” Why can we see clearly enough to dissuade our children, and yet fall for the same strategies ourselves? And why should I conform even if everyone is acting inappropriately, for as Saint Augustine is reported to have said, “Right is right even if no one is doing it; wrong is wrong even if everyone is doing it.”?

Selling the Party Scene

Glamorous people, exotic locations, exclusive clubs, who wouldn’t want to be a part of the party scene? Haven’t we all wished for less responsibilities and more fun? It couldn’t hurt to have just one night out with friends – even if it means calling in sick to work the next day. But for some, one night out becomes a weekend away, then a constant desire to shirk their duties for more fun and more excitement. And that desire is precisely what advertisers work to create: a huge group of friends enjoying their favourite beer together at a sports bar while the home team wins the championship, beautiful celebrities drinking premium liquor at an exclusive VIP nightclub, a dozen lovely ladies whisking the bachelorette away for a luxurious weekend in Vegas… whatever the specifics, marketers are selling the party scene as an escape from our humdrum lives.

With workplace stress levels at an all-time high, many people are tired and vulnerable, and would love nothing more than to escape their day-to-day responsibilities. Clever marketers prey on that susceptibility by showing the consumer how much fun they could have – if they buy whatever the company is selling; it could be alcohol, or vacations, fast food, or even video games – ultimately, the advertisers create a need that the consumer feels they must fill. Those advocating the Party Scene have taken that one step further and are selling an entire lifestyle.

For example, as more and more casinos have cropped up nationwide, we have seen an increasing numbers of advertising campaigns touting gambling as the latest and greatest trend in the entertainment industry. As Mark D. Griffiths (Ph.D.) explains in his articles Gambling Advertising and Marketing, excitement, glitz, and – best of all – winnings, are practically guaranteed in every television commercial; these get-rich-quick-and-live-the-life-you’ve-always-dreamed-of promotions gloss over some of the true threats present in the Party Scene: the high odds of losing when gambling, the associated evils of alcohol and drug consumption, and a belittling of the values of hard work and financial preparation for the future.

While the lure of a temporary escape is powerful in this age of overworked, overtired and underappreciated employees, it behooves the consumer to remember that such escapes truly are temporary and that, while the occasional wild weekend may not cause any harm, abandoning one’s duty to join the party scene will inevitability do more harm than good.

Ads for Alcohol, Food and Vacations

It is next to impossible, in our current hyper-connected era, to avoid advertising in all its forms. During a 1-hour television program, the viewer can expect to see approximately 15 minutes of commercials; magazines have dozens of ad pages; radio advertising often crops up between songs and during hourly news and weather updates. Most consumers find ads to be an understandably annoying interruption – but for some, they’re a minefield to be navigated: for a recovering addict, the recurring temptations posed by alcohol, food, gambling or even vacation ads can be difficult to resist. Advertising practices far too often prey on vulnerabilities, feeding our need to fit in by showing attractive models looking flawless, living perfect lives and having tons of fun, and showcasing their product as the key to achieving that perceived ideal lifestyle.

First, to someone with a food addiction or an eating disorder, the prevalence of food marketing can be difficult to resist: billboards spread throughout cities, print advertising in newspapers and magazines, coupon mailings or flyers, television and radio spots bombard the consumer throughout their day, whether at work or home.
To someone addicted to travel or using it to avoid their responsibilities, or to fill a void, especially those spending money they can ill afford to, the prevalence of low-cost vacation advertising – especially online – feeds the craving to escape reality and travel to exotic and fabulous locations.

For the recovering alcoholic, navigating daily life while avoiding the desire to drink is certainly difficult enough without encountering ads touting the smooth flavour of their liquor of choice.

Further, the advertiser can never be sure of their audience; though American advertising standards prohibit alcohol advertising using child-focused characters and where there is no reasonable expectations that over 70% of the audience will be over the legal drinking age, far too many children can still be exposed to alcohol ads and other harmful marketing, as many sports clubs or events are sponsored by alcohol producing companies.

Currently, many countries have strict standards for advertising, or even ban the advertisement of specific products, such as alcohol; health warnings on products labels might be required, which – though they inform citizens of the consequences of drinking alcohol – have not, according to A Review Of Research Into The Impacts Of Alcohol Warning Labels On Attitudes And Behaviour by Tim Stockwell, PhD., had a significant impact on reducing high-risk drinking in the United States.

Socially Acceptable Addictions

How could an addiction be socially acceptable? It’s truly a matter of semantics – and of the tolerance of the addict’s peer group. Generally, we avoid using words such as addiction, problematic, or out of control for behaviours that we consider socially acceptable – even when excessive. The term addiction is usually reserved for that which we deem socially inappropriate or deviant; and the specific behaviours encapsulated by that label vary according to social customs and standards of time and place. What does that mean?

Simply put, it’s difficult to view consuming illegal drugs, such as cocaine, as acceptable in social settings; however, consider the same behaviour from a different perspective: if everyone attending a party has partaken in cocaine, then the one person abstaining will be viewed as “outside” the norm and seen as less socially acceptable. Even cigarette smoking is increasingly viewed as an intolerable habit, though our grandparents’ and even our parents’ generations favoured the use of tobacco products.

For most of society, certain addictions are permissible, or even encouraged – especially those grounded in consumerism: a love of food, the reliance on caffeine, having a glass of wine with dinner or a cocktail with friends, the use of painkillers (either with a prescription or over-the-counter), dedication to one’s job, physical fitness, shopping, light gambling such as an occasional Bingo Night or Casino trip, and even casual sex (whether within or outside of relationships) are all tolerated by most of society. We will even turn a blind eye to mild transgressions such as one drinking binge, or the executive who spends more than 60 hours at the office every week – so long as no one is hurt, we don’t feel the need to step in and intervene in our loved one’s life. As long as the addict seems to be in control of themselves, and is able to mostly resist temptation, society chooses to ignore their occasional lapse

In truth, any of these seemingly innocent – and far too common – behaviours can be harmful if taken to excess: one wild weekend devolves into drinking to excess every Friday and Saturday night, and then daily. Even children and teens are at risk; the Society for the Study of Addiction discusses methods to diagnose internet gaming disorder – an addiction to video games. At what point should we step in to curb the addictive behaviours of those around us, of those we care for, those we love?

How Addiction Is Sold

We are all aware that the purpose of marketing is all too often to sell us things that we do not really need. Most of us can remember this lesson, until it comes to one of those commodities that people have a particularly strong craving for, such as alcohol, sex or food. Whatever your particular vice is, it is the one you are most likely to believe the advertisements for. This is dangerous, because marketers capitalize on the things that people have weaknesses for, making them a problem to your personal addiction recovery.

Marketers sell addictive items to people, such as alcohol or food, in a way that makes them appear harmless and implies no necessity of self control. A responsible, informed consumer of the item can tell you approximately with what frequency it is meant to be used. The advertiser, on the other hand, will promote the item as a regular necessity and will make no mention of the consequences of treating the commodity as such.\n\nThis fact is one of the foremost failings of consumerism and of society’s role in addiction problems. The economy in North American countries idealizes consumerism as the primary means of keeping the economy healthy, but pays no mind to where it is creating unhealthiness. Mental health problems, including addiction, are at an all time high, and connections can be found between this trend and what the ad world subjects us to.\n\nAdvertising is extremely invasive in our culture. It is on every type of digital media device we own, it is on the sides of freeways, it is on bus stop benches, it is on our cars and so on and so on. Even the most media literate person is susceptible to the modern messages of advertising, and its reach only grows wider with time. Now, more than ever, we need to take care to protect ourselves against the influences of advertising and marketing that promote addictive tendencies as harmless, commonplace and desirable.

Normalizing Addiction Through Marketing

Addiction is a harmful disorder that plagues every society on earth. In North America, a greater awareness is being brought to the subject of addiction and more and more people are receiving the treatment they need and the respect their condition calls for. However, there is another element of North American society that is working against healthy perceptions of addiction: marketing. Every medium that can support advertising depicts excessive consumption of addictive substances and activities. Why? Because the marketing world has no respect for the seriousness of addiction and are willing to profit from it instead.

Marketers do not simply sell an addictive product or activity. They sell the image that goes along with it. They portray alcohol consumption as nothing but a great time, smoking as a nod toward how cool a person is and sex as a romantic high with no side effects. Most of us are aware that these images are a misrepresentation. While they are correct part of the time, they in no way represent the hangovers, diseases and feelings of lowness that come with overusing these substances and activities. Instead, the models and aesthetics in the ad show images of pure bliss, frozen in time. They portray the substance or activity as common, rewarding and something that everyone needs to achieve.

The problem with this, of course, is that addicts see these advertisements and their struggle is enhanced. It leads people viewing the advertisement to believe the substance or activity could not possibly be harmful if it is so mainstream and desirable. This makes light of a situation that can become fatally serious. Addictive substances and activities have a light side and a dark side, as well as a historically large effect on those who use them, yet only the light side is advertised, creating a false sense of security within the person who experiments with the substance or activity. The lack of concern the marketing industry has shown for the way it misrepresents addictive substances and behaviors is alarming.

The Marketing World and Its Role in Addiction

The marketing world would like us to think it plays a responsible role in addiction and awareness, however, the truth about marketing is apparent anywhere ad space is sold. Marketers secretly want addicts to remain addicts, because it means they will be consumers for life. Marketers that advertise addictive substances or activities for sale appreciate the business that addicts give them and they are hoping addicts will respond to the ads they create with business. The more severe the addiction, the higher the level of consumerism, because the best consumer is an addict.

This trend of capitalizing on people’s addiction tendencies is a trademark of capitalism. Ever since the 1800’s, private businesses have been falsely marketing their products as the best on the market, life changing and without any side effects. In a free market, people are allowed to stretch the truth in their advertising to beat out the competition. This is a destructive tactic, especially for those who are struggling desperately with addiction. There are already many triggers and opportunities to relapse that addicts encounter even without advertising encouraging them to indulge in their addiction.

Advertisements for an addictive substance or activity work in opposition to addiction treatment and recovery. Where a treatment program or recovery mantra tells an addict to remember the grim reality of where their addiction puts them, an ad for the substance or activity coaxes its audience, telling them to go ahead and forget about the consequences and let go of their self control. This can lead an addict directly into relapse and undo months of time and effort they have invested into their recovery.

Advertising itself is not evil. Advertising serves a necessary purpose to our lives in a consumer culture. However, there is an enormous difference between ethical and unethical advertising. If a product is worthwhile, an advertisement can represent it truthfully and it will still be profitable. Honest advertising would largely reduce the problem of addiction, because it would help people avoid becoming addicted to the idea of a substance or activity rather than the reality of it.


The Truth About Addictive Substances

A set of pharmacy crosses in vector

The advertisements we see for products such as cigarettes, alcohol and prescription medications tell us that using them can give us nothing but pleasure and comfort. Cigarette ads depict the coolest, most well dressed individuals out on the town, alcohol ads tell us we will be the life of the party and a sexual magnet, and prescription sleep medications guarantee we will be smiling in our sleep with lazy butterflies fluttering around us. Similarly, products that are meant to enhance process addictions, such as condoms or casinos, depict a fictional world where there are no consequences for our actions. This type of advertising is destructive and irresponsible toward mental health awareness.

The truth about addictive substances is that if you do not consciously moderate yourself when using them, you will become addicted. That will lead you down an ugly road of substance abuse effects, including imbalanced body chemistry, broken sleep, anxiety, depression, trembling, hallucinations and other unpleasant conditions. A sex addiction can expose you to diseases and physical ailments, and a gambling addiction will deplete your finances and leave you destitute. These are the truths that advertising will never offer consumers. Instead, they will do anything they have to to disguise the product as harmless and necessary to every consumer.

What is worse, advertisers and marketing companies count on addicts to contribute the largest profit toward the addictive product. They are in favor of addicts staying addicted in order to make their sales goals. The way they campaign for this is by trying to convince addicts that they are not addicts. They want them to believe, instead, that they are no different from the average consumer; collected, in control and merely looking for a good time. They go to great lengths to convince addicts that their feelings and cravings are normal, and that they are in good company. Advertisers should feel a much stronger sense of responsibility toward serious mental health matters such as addiction.