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Advertising and Chemicals

| Hanno Langfelder

The double impact of advertising is on the one hand a psychological
one, in which we are shown to be imperfect so long as we do not consume
the product; on the other hand there is the physical damage potentially
caused by the product ingredients. The cause lies in the use of certain
chemical ingredients in many products, in particular cosmetics and
household products.

Today our senses can be confronted with up
to 1500 adverts in the course of one day. A mind-boggling amount. Imagine you
were to say “Hello” to 1500 people every day.

“If you’re like most people, you think
that advertising has no influence on you,” writes Jean Kilbourne, author
of Deadly Persuasion, “this is what advertisers want you to believe. But,
if that were true, why would companies spend over $200 billion a year on
advertising?” The companies depend on your attention – conscious or
subconscious – to advertise and your consumer decision based on the effect the
adverts have on you. They generate a need, but in fact we seldom really require
advertised products. The role of advertising is to create needs, desires,
wishes and wants. And in this it excels. We are coaxed, influenced and persuaded
to believe we need products, many of which are superfluous to everyday life.
Often they do not even have the advertised effect. One of the best examples is
anti-aging cream. Pointless, useless and ineffective, but it does cost money.

Our society’s non-stop advert deluge is
“trivializing human relationships and encouraging us to feel that we are
in relationships with our products,” writes Jean Kilbourne. This is
especially the case for women and it is they who suffer considerable negative
effects. Adverts for women portray perfection and convey love, sexuality,
romance and success only, if the advertised products are used. The strategy is
to shape your attitudes and beliefs. “Indeed, if we looked only at advertising
images, this would be a bleak world for females”, says Jean Kilbourne. Adverts
want to give you the feeling of dissatisfaction and play on your insecurities. Take
wrinkles on women, freckles, natural dark spots, etc. Are these things that needs
to be hidden or eliminated? Instead of feeling good about yourself, the adverts
makes you believe that you are suffering from a defect, which only the product
can repair. Once you have purchased and applied the product you can be sure of
your place in society. However we can never achieve the advertised image,
because marketing techniques are based on idealised and often enhanced images
of women and men, computer generated or manipulated to look perfect. But given
the high level of perfection communicated by the adverts you can be sure never
to be truly happy with yourself, adverts only serve to undermine. This on the
other hand will ensure a ceaseless demand for the companies’ products.

The result of this process on the individual
and society is a damaging effect with a double impact. “Advertising,”
says McGrane, a sociologist at Chapman University in California, is “the
opposite of therapy… it’s designed to generate an inner sense of conflict
with ourselves.” The conflict is the image conveyed by the advert and the
perception of one’s self in relationship to the image. Not a happy thought
considering what adverts are telling us to look like and how to behave. We do
not see ourselves reflected in these adverts hence they generate a need to
compete and achieve this level of perfection, which is realistically

The double impact of advertising is on the
one hand a psychological one, in which we are shown to be imperfect so long as
we do not consume the product; on the other hand there is the physical damage
potentially caused by the product ingredients. The cause lies in the use of
certain chemical ingredients in many products, in particular cosmetics and
household products. The danger is perhaps a far more sinister one, because of
the diverse effects, the long time delays and the difficulty in pinpointing the
exact source of any adverse health effects. In addition there is the serious
denial by producers and industries that there are no health problems in
connection with ingredients used in their products. The fact is that certain
chemicals have greatly improved our lives and our standard of living, but many
of the 85 000 different chemicals in consumer products do carry potentially
dangerous side effects. Hazardous chemicals can be grouped into three
categories: toxic, persistent and bio-accumulative.

In addition there is the problem of
concentration and the cumulative effect. We are not exposed to just one type of
chemical and only once a week, but in fact there is a whole cocktail of
chemicals, which we take in through our skin, breath in or consume with food
and drink. A study by WWF found up to 300 chemicals in people’s blood stream.
The same study found that children have higher levels of certain chemical concentration
in their blood than their grandparents. The potential health effects are many
and diverse. They include cancer, hormone disruption, allergies and asthma,
damage to the immune and reproductive system as well as developmental
disruption in children. In some cases the ability to link cause and effect with
regards to chemicals in consumer products has been achieved.

One such chemical group are the phthalates.
The harmful substances are found in cosmetic products, such as hair spray, nail
varnish and perfume. In 2002 a coalition of groups including Women’s
Environmental Network and Health Care Without Harm tested 34 different cosmetic
products and discovered that 80 percent contained phthalates. Phthalates are
believed to cause reproductive and developmental defects in male children
(Environmental Health Review, May 2005). Among the tested products were
perfumes, deodorants, hair spray and styling gel by Christian Dior, L’Oreal,
Proctor & Gamble, Lever Faberge and Wella. None of the product labels
carried phthalates listed as an ingredient and they were certainly not included
in the adverts, which proclaim beauty, joy, social acceptance and
attractiveness. This is a serious deficiency, which results in this double
negative impact of dissatisfaction and physical harm. “Rampant commercialism
undermines our physical and psychological health, our environment, and our
civic life and creates a toxic society. Advertising corrupts us and, I will
argue, promotes a dissociative state that exploits trauma and can lead to
addiction. To add insult to injury, it then co-opts our attempts at resistance
and rebellion”, says D. A. Clarke, an essayist and women activist. But there
are ways forward.

Activating industry to remove harmful
contents from their products and moving governments to ensure high standards of
safety for products used on a daily basis. You can use your consumer power and
not buy these products. You can wise up to these adverts and to see through the
hidden message contained in them. Go through your bathroom cupboard using a
toxic tour checklist to see which of your products contain potentially harmful
ingredients. Look for safe alternatives. Use the motto: simplify your life. Ask
yourself, do you really need all the products you have in your bathroom.


This article first appeared in the Conscious
Consumer magazine, issue 7.

Hanno Langfelder is responsible for press
and media communications for Women in Europe for a Common Future (WECF),
Munich, Germany.

Photo [cc] Julieanne




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