How Advertisers Create Toxic Stress

At about the same time that you entered the educational system you also became a consumer.

Whatever you choose to do with your life you will, to much of the world, always be a consumer.

People who make motor cars, bicycles, mobile telephones, washing machines, television sets and microwave ovens, think of the people who buy their products as consumers not people. Those who sell bread, milk, cheese, eggs and flour sell their produce to consumers. People who sell holidays, restaurant meals, hotel accommodation and train tickets aim their advertising at consumers. Accountants, lawyers, surveyors, doctors and agents of a hundred different types earn their living from consumers.

In order to persuade you to buy their products or services (and to spend ever increasing amounts of money on them) the people who make or sell their products or services will spend considerable amounts of money on trying to persuade you that the products or services they sell are better than anyone else’s. Society needs them to do this in order to survive and, even more important, in order to expand and grow ever richer.

And so every day your custom will be solicited in a thousand different ways – some crude and some subtle. Every day you will come face to face with an almost infinite variety of messages and exhortations.

The professionals who prepare the advertisements with which you are confronted are only too aware of the fact that it is no longer enough for them to tell you of the value of the product they are selling. These days the competition is so great that advertising agencies are no longer content to tell you how to satisfy your basic needs. These days advertising agencies know very well that in order to succeed in the modern market place they must create new needs; their advertising must create wants and desires, hopes and aspirations, and turn those wants, desires, hopes and aspirations into needs. They do this through exaggeration and deceit and through exploiting your weaknesses and your fears. They create layer after layer of toxic stress in order to turn you into an ever more eager customer. (Toxic Stress is the name I invented to describe the underlying stress in our lives. My book `Toxic Stress’ explains how to deal with it. `Toxic Stress’ is available from the Books section on

Modern advertising agencies know (because they’ve done the necessary research) that it is impossible to sell anything to a satisfied man. But, in order to keep the wheels of commerce turning, in order to keep the money coming in, in order to ensure that society continues to expand, the advertising agencies must keep encouraging us to buy; they must constantly find new and better ways to sell us stuff we don’t really want. Any fool can sell us products and services that we need. The trick is in turning our most ephemeral wants into basic needs. In order to do this advertising agencies must use all their professional skills to make us dissatisfied with what we already have. They need us to be constantly dissatisfied and frustrated. They constantly need to create new and more virulent forms of toxic stress.

Modern advertising raises the intensity of our desires and builds our dissatisfaction and our fears in order to satisfy its own mercenary ends. Modern advertising is a creative art. The advertising professional is hired to create unhappiness and dissatisfaction. He is paid to make us want more possessions, excitement or status. He is paid to keep us dissatisfied and wanting more.

The advertising people will do their best to make you dissatisfied with anything which cannot be profitable for them. They want to take away your appreciation of the simple things in life so that they can sell you complicated and expensive things. They would rather you sat down to watch football on TV than that you kicked an old ball around in the park. They want you to wash away your natural, sexual odours and replace them with odours taken from the sexual glands of animals. They want you to be in so much of a hurry that you eat instant foods rather than growing and then preparing your own vegetables. They want you to ride in a car rather than walk or ride a bicycle. They want you to forget your needs and replace them with wants out of which they can make a profit. They want you to feel guilty if you don’t smell right or don’t look the way they want you to look. They want you feel guilty if you don’t buy the new season’s clothes, handbags and shoes. They want you to feel a failure if you don’t buy the latest toys or fill your home with the latest gadgets and bits and pieces of equipment.

They don’t want you to be able to wear the clothes you like or feel comfortable wearing. They don’t want you to be able to walk freely through our towns and cities. They don’t want you to enjoy any real freedom. They need your money and so they want your soul.

Or maybe they just need your soul because they want your money.

The advertising industry is responsible for much of the sickness and much of the unhappiness in our society.

Even if you do buy the products they want to sell you, you will still not find the satisfaction they promise you. Their advertisements are shallow, their promises empty and hollow.

Their advertising may suggest that if you buy their product you will become popular and successful. The suggestion will be made with care and caution. The advertisers are subtle in their cruelty.

But you will be disappointed. Even if you buy the product you will remain frustrated and dissatisfied. The advertising professionals, like politicians make many promises which they know they cannot keep. Indeed, they never intended to keep their promises.

To the spiritual and mental frustration created by all this disappointment you must add physical frustration too for the chances are high that the product you buy will soon fail. Obsolescence is built in and essential to all new products. Built in mechanical or fashionable obsolescence enables the car companies to keep making and selling us new cars (even though most of us already have cars which work perfectly well) and the manufacturers of television sets to keep making and selling new television sets.

Sadly, the advertising professionals don’t care about the poor, the disabled and the sick or frail. Such people are not good consumers. Modern advertising destroys the poor. It shows them things they cannot have. It shows them services they cannot buy. It inflames their desires. It creates wants and then turns those wants into needs. It creates frustration. It creates passion. And it creates violence. The poor do not even have the simple satisfaction of discovering that the products they are offered are never likely to satisfy the promises made for them.

I believe that advertising is one of the greatest causes of toxic stress and is, therefore, one of the greatest of all modern threats to physical and mental health. Advertising agencies kill far more people than industries which pollute the atmosphere. Advertising is built on promises that can never be kept, and were never intended to be kept. Advertising is designed to replace your freedom with constraints. Advertising agencies succeed by making people unhappy. Advertising is the symbol of modern society; it represents false temptations, hollow hopes and unhappiness and disenchantment; it inspires values which are based on fear and greed.

Taken from Toxic Stress by Vernon Coleman. Available as a paperback and an eBook.