It’s well understood that ever increasing demand for goods and services is fueling climate breakdown. Yet despite this advertisers go to extreme expense to convince us to spend more and more. That’s why activists and campaigners of all kinds are heaping pressure on the advertising industry (and the biggest polluters) to clean up their act. Dermot McNally investigates.
Firstly a new initiative dubbed the Ministry for the Climate Emergency is seeking to tackle the advertising industry’s lack of accountability for it’s role in climate breakdown. The campaign itself singles out fossil fuel companies and resource intense lifestyles specifically, and adverts feature a health warning explaining the dangers of “brain pollution”. As well as adverts which have gone viral on social media, the campaign involves protests outside the offices of major advertising agencies (whose clients include Chevron, Texaco, BP etc). It can be all too easy for these faceless advertising agencies to work unchallenged and this type of public “naming and shaming” brings the responsibility to their doorsteps.
Dr Van Tulleken, whose voice over is heard in the campaign says: “The brain pollution of advertising creates not just the high-carbon lifestyles feeding the climate emergency, but also a wave of commerciogenic diseases ranging from malnutrition to depression. Yet this is one of the least talked about and understood aspects of the climate and public health crises. We need to end the badvertising that undermines climate action and public health for both our health and our ultimate survival.”
The Ministry for the Climate Emergency isn’t waiting for advertising agencies to regulate their own behaviour: instead they are demanding legislation against high-carbon advertising with emphasis on fossil fuel companies, motor cars and flying. Thankfully there is precedence: local Governments in Norwich, Liverpool and Amsterdam are all taking measures to curtail these types of ads.
Not only does the advertising industry promote “carbon intensive products”, they also assist high polluters to “greenwash” according to experts. Many of us will have seen the adverts by fossil fuel companies claiming that they are heavily investing in renewable energy: the truth is that most oil producers spend a tiny fraction of their revenues on renewable technology, preferring to direct resources into further oil and gas extraction. BP ran adverts claiming “We’re working to make energy cleaner” at a time when 96% of its annual spend was on oil and gas. BP and their likes understand the damage they do yet want us to believe they are working to make things better. This trickery is now being rightly called out as unethical.
The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) – a UK government regulatory body is cracking down on such exaggerated claims. They’ve released new guidelines demanding transparency in the claims advertisers make. Other initiatives such as AdGreen (who launched a free carbon calculator) want to help brands and advertising agencies measure the CO2 produced by their campaigns in an effort to promote net zero by 2030. The independent watchdog Brandalism exposes the ecological vandalism of many brands (and their advertising agencies). Nowhere is safe for the purveyors of misinformation: the advertising industries top awards ceremony was targeted by Extinction Rebellion who unveiled a sign reading “TELL THE TRUTH” during the glitzy event. Extinction Rebellion want a tobacco-style ban on fossil fuel advertising.
In recent months the US Congress announced an investigation into the campaign of disinformation and climate change denial that the fossil fuel industry has funded. Back in the UK the Guardian Newspaper became the first global news organisation to stop taking money from fossil fuel extraction companies. The reason? “Our decision is based on the decades-long efforts by many in that industry to prevent meaningful climate action by governments around the world,” said senior Guardian executives. Greenpeace called it a “watershed” moment which would end the legitimacy of fossil fuels. Furthermore the Guardian are adjusting their phraseology to reflect the scale of the challenge. The terms “climate change” and “global warming” are being replaced by “climate emergency” and “global heating”.
Other campaigners are going down the legal route. In the US Delaware, along with Connecticut, Massachusetts, Minnesota, the District of Columbia and others are suing the oil industry for violating consumer protection laws through their “greenwashing” adverts. Advertising agencies may well find themselves dragged into the Courts to explain their actions: similar lawsuits against the tobacco industry in the 1980’s and 90’s highlighted the devious role played by PR companies in fooling the public about the dangers of smoking.
But the advertising world isn’t all made up of unethical players: Futerra, an advertising agency based in the UK are asking other agencies to voluntarily declare what proportion of their income comes from from not only “Big Oil”, but also the airline, motor, concrete and plastics industry. 244 Agencies have signed up to the initiative.
Finally all of this unprecedented pressure is causing recruitment problems for fossil fuel companies and the agencies that work for them. “Most talented executives want to be part of the solution, not the problem,” said one US Recruitment Agency. Take the example of Christine Arena, CEO of Generous, a PR firm from California. She left a large Public Relations firm to protest it’s representation of Big Oil firms. She says it’s no longer tenable for PR firms to position themselves as climate saviours while representing the firms that are causing the most ecological damage. Without doubt, things are going to get increasingly uncomfortable for the big polluters and their facilitators in the years ahead.