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3 November 2022

Advertisers, please stop exploiting cost-of-living anxiety

At best, it’s an unhelpful reminder of the financial issues we face. At worst it’s cynically capitalising on our anxieties.

By Hugh Smiley

A recent La Vie meat substitute billboard advert points out that “our parents got the property boom, but we’ve got vegan bacon that tastes like bacon”. While many young people are sentenced to a life of insecure rent-paying after 12 years of Conservative housing policies that intentionally favour an older, wealthier, property-owning voter base, at least we can be comforted by the promise of an ethical fry-up.

Indeed, an increasing number of advertisements are referencing the cost-of-living crisis: supermarkets, bars and even dating apps attempt to reflect the economic anxiety that many are facing as a way of attracting struggling customers.

And it isn’t just housing that can be used as a form of sad advertising (or “sadvertising”). Rising energy prices are also being exploited. Did you know the cost of heating the average home for the evening is roughly the same as two pints at the Town Square bar and food market (with a special QR code offer)? Neither did the people of Belfast until a billboard in the city proclaimed this as a viable alternative to rising energy costs. While many of us are not opposed to finding flimsy excuses to go for a pint, the crippling rise in energy prices is not one that usually comes to mind. The thinking behind such an advertisement strategy is perplexing: “How can we get more people to spend money in our bar? Well, we have to simply remind them of how little disposable income they have.” Genius!

To understand the psychology behind these adverts, one doesn’t need to look any further than an article in Advertising Week, which aims to help brands navigate the cost-of-living crisis. It encourages brands to act as a “safe haven” for those facing economic anxiety, specifically targeting people who are “finance negative” – ie, those hit hardest by the high cost of living.

On the Tube, there’s an advertisement for a Muslim dating site encouraging the consumer to “find a habibi to split energy bills with”. Seemingly, the message is: “Sorry you can’t afford to heat your home, maybe try not being so lonely. Ever thought of that?” Bleak though the advert may be, it does conjure the image of a Tindler Swindler-style scam artist, who instead of conning their way into private jets and luxury meals, simply hops from one romantic partner to another as a means of dodging rising energy prices.

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An attempt at tongue-in-cheek humour from advertisers is at best a reminder of the financial issues many are facing, and at worst (or rather in reality) a cynical attempt to capitalise on people’s worries and anxieties to sell whatever product they have to shill. The spread of sadvertising is a reflection of how permeating economic hardship has become in the UK. It is such a feature of our society that it is now a productive concept to invoke when selling things – like nostalgia, patriotism or the Go Compare man. 

As economic hardship becomes increasingly normalised, expect plenty more consumable reminders of how bad things really are.

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