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A local ad guru explains why ads are destroying the world. 

Reinventing the Hard Sell

Jelly Helm, associate professor at the Virginia Commonwealth University Adcenter, doesn't believe buying things will make you happy.

It's an odd stance for an ad expert to take, but it's one Helm, former group creative director for The Martin Agency, says is essential for healthy living. Helm is the only American — and the only educator — appointed to a recently empanelled 12-member United Nations group that aims to encourage the advertising industry to realize the impact it has on consumerism. The committee hopes to promote sustainable consumption of the Earth's resources.

Last week the UN panel met for the first time in Paris. Style caught up with Helm via phone and e-mail from Europe.



Style: What is sustainable consumption?



Helm: Simply put, it's a way of doing business that is fair to everyone — the company, the consumer, the person on the assembly line, the community where the product is made and disposed of. A business that operates in such a way is sustainable because it is operating with a focus on long-term health. It can be sustained. This contrasts against businesses that operate for short-run profits, with often harmful results.



Style: Why has the advertising industry become the UN's focus on curbing over-consumption of natural resources?



Helm: The UN has concentrated on sustainable production, that is, they've focused on producers. They realized that progress on sustainability would only happen if there was support on the consumer side, the demand side. Sustainable consumption is about educating people that their consuming choices matter.



Style: How influential and damaging can advertising be? And how would you suggest the industry become more responsible?



Helm: Well, advertising's greatest damage is not any individual ad, but the combined effect of the thousands of marketing messages we see every day. The messages all share a common theme: Buying things will make you happy. There is a certain "duh" reaction to that comment. Of course companies want to sell you things, and they want to promise that you'll be happy, but when that message is the dominant one, it affects how we behave as a culture. …

Helm: Look at how materialist values, individualist values, have replaced more community-minded values. Most of the values in our consumer culture are counter to the sort of values it takes to build a strong community: Indulge yourself versus show some restraint. Have it now versus plan for the future. Materialist values versus spiritual values.

Buying and selling can happily exist, of course, in context with other more community-minded, less materialistic values. The problem is that, without realizing it, business has become the dominant voice, drowning out the others. Sustainability is an attempt to get the economic values more in balance, by owning up to the way business operates and affects the wider community. And as the mouthpiece, the public face of business, advertising must be involved in this process.



Style: Sustainable consumption is aimed not at consuming less, but at consuming differently. What does that mean?



Helm: It means that this isn't a revolution of austerity. Sustainability isn't about joyless sackcloth-wearers eating hard bread. It simply means that as consumers we must realize that our consumption choices have an impact on the world. Ideally, we should know more about a product than how much it costs and whether it suits our needs. We should know whether a product used resources responsibly, whether the people who made it were treated fairly, what sort of impact the product's use and disposal has on the environment.



Style: It seems likely that Earth-friendly approaches to advertising would all but disappear if high-dollar clients were threatened by them. How would you aim against this?



Helm: The companies [that] take a long-term approach versus a short-term rush for profits realize that not embracing sustainability is suicide. Sustainable is another word for healthy. Sustainability is really about aligning a company's private face with their public face, making sure that their behavior doesn't undermine what they are saying to the public in their advertising.

For example, Nike runs some ads about women's empowerment. Meanwhile, underage Asian girls are making their shoes in sweatshop conditions. And it doesn't necessarily mean that sustainability will be a message in the advertising. I'm already getting sick of the earth-friendly messages. The ads will have to be what successful advertising always is: human, honest, persuasive, surprising.



Style: You have worked on some of the biggest name brand ad campaigns imaginable: Timberland, Microsoft, Nike and Coke. How can you create a successful ad campaign that doesn't encourage consumption?



Helm: Representing companies you believe in is a good start. Does this company add health to the wider community? If the answer to that is yes, it makes advertising it with a clear conscience a lot easier. Is there a way to sell that encourages healthier values? Sure. I don't think I could write a guidebook, but our intuition is a good guide.



Style: You have an uncommon point of view for an ad guy. How did you get involved in this?



Helm: I moved to Europe and got first-hand exposure to cultures where consuming takes a more balanced place in people's lives. I read John Ruskin and Jerry Mander and Neil Postman and other social critics. I found myself in situations with clients where I was confused and uncomfortable. Discomfort and confusion are great
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