Let's tax advertising

I propose a 100% advertising tax.

All the money collected should be spent on advertising the precise opposite.

So, for example, tax raised from all the money spent on advertising cars should be spent advertising cycling and walking.

All the money raised from the advertising of new clothes should be spent on showing people how to repair the clothes they already have.

All the money raised from the advertising of ready meals and take-away food should be spent advertising how people can make their own healthy and nutritious meals.

Some might object to this idea because advertising is a perfectly harmless activity that provides nothing more than valuable information to consumers.  Taxing it would distort the market and lead to bad outcomes.

Others might like the idea because advertising is evil and manipulative and persuades us to buy things we don’t really want.  Taxing it would prevent the industry’s worst excesses and liberate us from the tyranny of consumerism.

I hold to neither of these positions.

My concern is merely that choices from which no money is made are not promoted.  My favourite example is walking.   Walking is unbelievably good, for more or less everything.  It’s good for your physical health and good for your mental health.  It’s good for the environment and good for developing a sense of community.

But how often do we see adverts reminding us of this choice?  Hardly ever.  And why?  Because (virtually) no one makes any money from us choosing to walk.

So my proposal (and this builds on the argument I sketched in Bad Habits) is that different choices should be offered to us – not instead of, but as well.  Imagine: how quickly might we move to a better world if £22bn was spent in the UK each year promoting sustainable lifestyles?

It’s not enough that we merely restrict advertising.  This will merely encourage the industry to think up new ways to get their profit-generating message across.

A 100% tax would – of course – dramatically reduce the amount of money spent by businesses on advertising.  But since the money raised from the tax would have to be spent on advertising – just different things – the total size of the advertising industry would be unaffected.

And, since it would affect all businesses equally, there would still be a level playing field – which is generally what businesses ask for.

So!  A 100% tax on advertising, with the money raised spent on advertising a more sustainable world.  What’s not to like?


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