By Max Lawson

Bullshit jobs

When I was out walking my dog Marx earlier in the week, I got talking to another dog walker.  I recognized her as she is always out with her dog, but generally talking quite loudly on her phone so we had not spoken before.  I asked her what she does for a living, and she said she helps recruit creatives for big advertising campaigns for the major brands; people like artists, film makers, copy writers. She said she was stressed, as July is her busiest moment of the year, because they are in the middle of producing the Christmas advertising campaigns for the big brands.  This is a huge deal she said, and highly sensitive and secret.  All her creatives are required to sign powerful non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) which prevent them from even revealing who they have worked for on pain of legal action.  Everything she said is under a veil of tremendous secrecy as millions of pounds are spent on these campaigns. 

(Watch what was generally thought to be the best Christmas advert last year from one of our leading UK supermarkets, John Lewis- to be fair it is pretty brilliant, and I shed a tear, then got cross for being manipulated.)

I have often thought and written about the incredible waste of talent that a deeply unequal society like ours in the UK represents – but from the perspective of the talented people from the working classes not having a hope of getting some of the top jobs in UK society; a society where even half our rock bands went to expensive private schools, along with 70% of our judges.

It struck me though that what this new dog walking friend of mine was talking about was another huge waste of talent.  These amazing creative artists, communicators, project managers, lawyers, all engaged in no doubt highly stressful and demanding jobs, sweating their way through the European summer, all with the aim of producing the best advertising campaign at Christmas.

The late David Graeber, who was an incredible original thinker, some years ago coined the term ‘Bullshit Jobs’.  He wrote a piece about the proposal that many high profile, professional jobs are in fact largely pointless, or as he calls them, ‘Bullshit Jobs’.  His piece was hugely read, and he set up a whistle blowing email account for those around the world to contact him who felt their job fitted this category.  Here is one quote from an Australian lawyer from the book:

‘Wow! Nail on the head! I am a corporate lawyer (tax litigator to be specific). I contribute nothing to this world and am utterly miserable all of the time. ‘

I have always thought our economic system is unfair, but I think it is also deeply and profoundly inefficient and wasteful too.  What better example than wasted talent of potential astrophysicists hoeing fields in Uganda or serving burgers in Utah, and then at the same time the talent of some of our most brilliant, creative people engaged in selling us ever more stuff.

The vital role of advertising in keeping capitalism going

It is more than just a waste of talent too; many of these jobs arguably actively harm society. Many have pointed out that for modern capitalism to work, when everyone’s basic needs are met, people have to be convinced to buy more things, and that is where advertising and marketing comes in.  To quote Philip Kotler, the ‘father of modern marketing’:

‘Marketing is the enabler of Capitalism. It is the Engine of Capitalism. Without marketing, capitalism would collapse (his emphasis).’

Marketing is the enabler of Capitalism. It is the Engine of Capitalism. Without marketing, capitalism would collapse.

Philip Kotler

When I moved back to the UK from Kenya, for a brief period at least, I found myself looking at my own society through the eyes of someone from outside.  It gives you a different perspective, like when you see one of those optical illusions from a different angle.  One of the things that struck me was the insane amount of stuff that is bought and consumed daily in the UK, and how cheap it is.  The streets are piled with stuff people are giving away, charity shops are overwhelmed with stuff, given to them to make room for new purchases.  I am pretty desensitised to it again now, but for a brief moment I got a glimpse of just how insane it is.

In order to make a profit, things have to be bought and sold.  If people stop buying, profits stop. Profits are also made by lending people money so they can keep buying stuff. So, it follows that we have to keep people buying, and convince them that they need to keep buying, because the more they buy, the greater the profitability.

This is where advertising comes in.  The widely recognised inventor of modern public relations or PR, of which advertising and marketing are a key part, was a man called Bernays, who was the nephew of Sigmund Freud.  He wrote a very famous book called Propaganda:

‘The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. We are governed, our minds are moulded, our tastes formed, and our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of…. It is they who pull the wires that control the public mind.’

He had been really impressed by the power of propaganda during World War I.  Nevertheless, ‘propaganda’ itself was already a pejorative term, so he rebranded it Public Relations (a genius move repeated endlessly, as Ministries of War become Ministries of Defence etc.).

Bernays went on to work for many different corporate clients like General Electric, Procter & Gamble and the American Tobacco Company.  He promoted cigarettes as both soothing to the throat and slimming to the waistline – whilst apparently forbidding his wife to smoke.

These days advertising is a multi-billion-dollar industry.  The giants of the tech world, who have such power over our lives, are as profitable as they are entirely because of advertising.  Digital algorithms allow adverts to be targeted and tailored in ever more clever ways. 

Jason Hickel brilliantly compares this with fracking and the oil industry:

It’s a kind of psychological warfare. Just as the oil industry has turned to more aggressive ways of extracting reserves that are increasingly difficult to reach, so advertisers too are turning to ever more aggressive ways at getting at the last milliseconds of our attention.  They are fracking, as it were, for our minds.

Jason Hickel

This in turn drives a level of consumption that is ruining our planet. 

Advertising and inequality, a poisonous relationship

But what about the relationship between advertising and inequality?  Where does that come in?

Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson in their book The Inner Level show how advertising spending in more unequal societies is significantly higher.  Advertising is much more prevalent in low income areas of the same country than in high income areas too.   People living in more equal societies are more resistant to advertising it seems, and it is less impactful.

They make the link between this and status anxiety.  Many studies have shown how more unequal societies are more materialistic. The psychologist Tim Kassler developed the Aspiration Index, which places peoples’ values on different continuums. In countries that are more unequal, goals have been found to be more extrinsic and materialistic (like financial success, image, popularity) versus intrinsic (like personal growth, affiliation, community feeling). Greater materialism is related to anxiety and depression, lack of empathy, more prejudice, antisocial behaviour and favouring competition over collaboration.

He found that American children have become more materialistic since 1976, increasingly placing  more importance on money and owning expensive things. For the children of the poorer sections of society, this in turn creates more anxiety, as they are continually reminded of what they don’t have and can’t have.  A 2015 UNICEF report that based on 55,000 children in 15 countries ranked the UK as having some of the lowest child wellbeing.  A further UNICEF UK report looked in depth at children and families in the UK, Spain and Sweden:

‘British families [were] struggling, pushed to find the time their children want… Children have a growing awareness of inequality as they approach secondary school [from 11 to 16 years in the UK], and the role of consumer goods in identifying and creating status within peer groups…Whilst many UK parents are complicit in purchasing status goods to hide social insecurities, this behaviour is almost totally absent in [countries like] Spain and Sweden.

It seems to be the case that materialism is greater in more unequal societies, and that it is likely that materialism does drive anxiety and unhappiness, and that in turn greater unhappiness drives more materialism. Advertising adds fuel to this unequal fire.

I also think from my own experience this is happening on a global scale now.  I think of the young Kenyans I worked with in Nairobi from slums like Dandora or Mukuru, who all had smart phones and the ability to watch YouTube and so were exposed to the lives and consumption of the richest people in the world, the celebrities, the trend setters in a way that was simply not possible before.  

Advertising and marketing are not the only cause of all this, but clearly don’t help. It seems to me that the world would certainly be a better place if there was a lot less advertising.  In Sweden adverts are banned that target children under 12 for example. Sao Paulo has banned public adverts in some parts of the city.

We cannot ignore the battle for our minds

I also think though that we can never entirely escape the power and importance of advertising, marketing, and public relations in shaping public attitudes.  I think that progressives ignore the science of mass communication at their peril.  The famous battle for people’s hearts and minds is a real one, and if we want people to value greater equality, inclusion, and community, rather than being driven more towards materialism with all its negative impacts on inequality, happiness, and the planet, we must be prepared to engage in this fight.

This online advert is for me an amazing example of this. It was created in support of Jeremy Corbyn’s surprisingly successful 2017 UK election campaign. It seems so long ago now sadly but he came very close to beating the Conservatives, confounding all predictions.  It is an honest film, celebrating the wonderfulness of ordinary people in the UK, and the simple message that the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn was very much on their side.  Given the negative and uniform derision of Corbyn from all the mainstream media, it was communications like this that managed to break through and make the alternative case.

Anyhow, for now my dog walking friend marched off into the distance to continue working on her super secretive Christmas campaigns, and I was left thinking just how completely mad our modern world is.

Have great weekends everyone.

Author: Max Lawson is the Head of Inequality Policy at Oxfam International & a co-host of the EQUALS Podcast. He is also Chair of the global People’s Vaccine Alliance.

Image Credits:

  1. Goofy Cigarette Advert #1” by inky is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.
  2. Inequality Juxtaposition from: