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Protecting cultural rights from excessive advertising

17 December 2014

“Commercial advertising and marketing practices have an increasing impact on the cultural and symbolic landscapes we inhabit and more widely on cultural diversity,” said Farida Shaheed. “Commercial messaging has the potential to deeply influence the philosophical beliefs of people and their aspirations, as well as cultural values and practices.”

Shaheed, UN Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights, made this statement during her presentation of a report on the subject during the 69th Session of the UN General Assembly Third Committee.

She said that while people have free will to make their decisions, the growing presence of advertising and marketing in public and educational spaces is a cause for concern. The constantly blurred lines between commercial and non-commercial content, the huge numbers and varieties of marketing communications received by people daily, and even techniques aimed at circumventing individual rational decision making are cause for concern.

Shaheed cited neuromarketing as one such worry. Neuromarketing uses advances in neurosciences, such as brain scans, to develop commercial advertising and marketing strategies for products.  The danger of such techniques, she argued, is that it can unduly influence an individual’s choice by circumventing conscious free will.

Another area of concern Shaheed highlighted was the growing presence of advertising in schools. Through school materials, sponsored lessons, branded materials disseminated on school grounds and fund-raising strategies, advertisers and marketers are turning schools into a commercial market place.

Shaheed recommended that States ban all forms of commercial advertising and marketing in public and private schools. She also recommended prohibiting all forms of advertising to children under 12 years of age, regardless of medium or means used.

“Schools constitute a distinct cultural pace, deserving of special protection from commercial influence,” she said.

Shaheed called on States to also be mindful of the influence commercial advertising and marketing have on the use of public space. She noted how, despite calls from civil society organizations in many places to remove illegal billboards and to denounce excessive advertising, the billboards and advertising remain. For example, she stressed the sharp disparity between the paucity of action for removing illegal billboards compared with the far greater resources devoted to removing illegal graffiti, with sanctions in the form of fines and even jail sentences.

In fact, she pointed out that often the very organizations lodging the complaints have found themselves facing defamation lawsuits by advertising companies. She called on States to take measures to reduce the level of commercial advertising people receive on a daily basis and ensure that there is space for not-for-profit messaging.   

“At stake is our ability to relate to our environment, to our urban and rural landscapes; our freedom of thought; our cultural diversity,” she said.

17 December 2014