Value Pollution

The following is a portion of the transcript from our interview with Tim Kasser about value pollution.

On this edition we return to our conversation with Dr. Tim Kasser, a psychology professor at Knox College who is no stranger to rural living. We were extremely fortunate to speak with Dr. Kasser, he is the well-known author of a 2002 book called ¨The High Price of Materialism¨ which explores the undesirable effects that living in a consumerist culture has.  He´s also featured in Andrew Morgan´s 2015 documentary ¨The True Cost¨ which examines consumerism and the mass media; this film and 2011s ¨Happy¨ are both featured on Netflix and I highly recommend you watch immediately.

Dr. Kasser spoke with us about a topic he is very passionate, one that we´ll refer to as value pollution.  He’s studied value pollution for over 20 years and finds, among other things, that there are some very harmful effects advertising in particular has on children. While this may not seem like an issue unique to rural Americans, perhaps rural areas are better equipped to deal with this problem due to our ability to organize and come together.  Our essential questions today are why should we ban advertisements in schools and what would alternative, intrinsically-driven ads look like? We will do our best to tackle this important, eye opening topic and more on this edition of Forgottonia.

We asked Dr. Kasser to expand on this idea of value pollution and why he feels it’s important to remove ads from children. 

  1. A vast majority of ads are about persuading someone to buy something. Many implicit messages are present, mainly that it’s important to make money and buy stuff.  The belief that it’s important to have a lot of possessions that signal I´m important are known as extrinsic values; caring a lot about money, image, status and popularity.  Research shows that the more people are exposed to extrinsic values the more they believe these are important.  Problem is that research shows the more materialistic people are the less happy they are, the less nicely they treat other people, and they damage the earth more. In their desire to use more and more stuff they use more resources and pollute the planet. Advertisements stand in the way of our well-being.
  2. I´ve argued for a long-time that ads for children should be banned. Some nations have banned ads. The US discussed this in the late 70s but Congress rejected it. We are one of the most unregulated nations in the world when it comes to advertising, especially to children. Problem is that kids under the age of 12 don´t have the cognitive capacity to understand persuasive intent. They are very susceptible to advertising messages at the same time they are trying to form their identity & form their values. This helps a person form a consumer identity.  So this is why I believe we should ban advertising to children who are under 12.
  3. Now under tax law it´s considered to be a legitimate expense for businesses to advertise; they can write off money they spend on ads. I´ve argued for a long time since advertising is associated with materialism and materialism is associated with less well-being one should consider it is a form of value pollution. Just as we tax other kind of polluters, we should tax them rather than subsidize them. We can then use this money to fund schools or playgrounds or free public TV.

If commercials advertisements are banned for kids under the age of twelve, what should ads look like for adolescents over the age of 12? We asked Dr. Kasser what alternative, intrinsically-driven advertisements geared toward adolescents would look like.

  1. Research shows that you´re happier when you pursue intrinsic values (personal growth, connection to the community and to other people).  They also stand in tension with extrinsic values. You can’t be greedy and be generous. You can’t really hope someone loves your new dress and desire personal growth, helping others.
  2. Advertising blocks our ability to help grow intrinsic values. I presented at Harvard 3 weeks ago about what ethical advertising would look like.  First, there is no advertising to people under 12.  For people over 12, we must have honest value proposition.  During the presentation I showed an advertisement from the 50s of a man and woman on a beach.  The lady poured a beer that said ¨Budweiser, where’s there’s life there’s Bud.¨  We laugh because it’s a ridiculous value proposition.  It´s also ridiculous to say people will love you if you buy this shampoo or diamond ring. Evidence shows the more you spend on a diamond ring, the more divorce is likely to happen.  If crayola said if you buy crayola crayons you can express yourself better, this seems like a more honest value proposition. This is an example of honest value proposition.

Dr. Kasser also shared with us his feelings about the danger of allowing advertising in schools.

  1. Advertising is never appropriate in a school setting. Advertising can only be ethical in places where there’s a social contract; when people enter a situation by choice where advertisements are present. Like when opening newspaper or turning on the TV.  But when I send my child to school paid by taxes, I enter no such contact where my kids are exposed to such ads.

Finally, we asked Dr. Kasser to give advice to young people of Forgottonia as they participate in addressing these issues:

  1. It’s easy to look around and say what can I do?  But do what you can where you are. If you can´t change your school or town, you can’t change the world.  It gives you the practice of changing the world. It’s also a way to learn. Schools are social laboratories for social activism.  For example, over the past 10 years at Knox College students have driven sustainability efforts.  So take a look at where you are. You won’t change the United States, but you can do things here to make it a better place to live that fits intrinsic values better. That promotes equality, sustainability, and well-being. Ask yourself what’s the thing that I can work on. Find some friends, get people older than you to help you out. Treat people you interact with respect, don’t make them the enemy.  Assume they´re willing to help you.  And see if you can make progress.
  2. We have a tendency to think in America that we have to change things at the federal level.  I believe the future of change lies at the local level. Whether it´s Cuba or Chicago.  And making these changes ripple out.  Women had the right to vote in Wyoming decades before the whole US.  Think about ways to improve where you are.

 

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