The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has pledged to crack down on the so-called “greenwash” in advertising in a bid to quell growing public concern. Chairman Lord Smith last week made a commitment to closely police advertisers against exaggerating or making false claims relating to green credentials.
Just days after Lord Smith’s announcement, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the US equivalent of the ASA, said it was bringing forward a regulatory review of its environmental marketing guidelines, the Green Guides.
Between January and September 2007 the ASA received complaints about 321 ads making “green” claims, a substantial increase from the 62 ads complained about during 2006. So far in 2007, the ASA has upheld complaints in 19 cases, compared with 10 cases in 2006.
An ASA spokesman says: “Because of the proliferation of green claims, our role is to put the goalposts firmly in place, so that precedents are set.” The most recently upheld complaint concerned Boeing UK, after a press ad about the yet-to-launch 747-8 said that it produced “less than 75 grams of CO2 per passenger km”. The ad was found to be misleading because Boeing had based its figures on the aircraft being 100% full and not on the UK Government standard figure of 79.7% when calculating CO2 emissions.
Some observers believe that the watchdog is taking a hardline view over such claims, anxious to “cover” itself and be seen to be putting its house in order. And, as such, penalising companies that make claims which are not unequivocally supported by the current scientific evidence or are simply debatable, rather than false.
Co-founder of advertising agency St Luke’s and author of The Green Marketing Manifesto John Grant observes: “It’s not like this is the unsecured loans market, for example, where there are a lot of cowboys fibbing. What you’re talking about is an industry learning how to communicate responsibly.”
According to Stuart Pocock, managing partner of intermediary The Observatory, it should be incumbent on agencies to verify client claims before producing ads. He adds: “There is no doubt that green issues are being used as marketing tools. I concur that the ASA has to take action, but it is also beholden on an agency to establish how substantive any claims are.” Some experts question the rise of such advertising, saying that other channels communicate a company’s green credentials more effectively. Grant says that interviews with company executives and reports from non-governmental organisations (NGOs) allow people to discover information in context and learn whether a company is doing more than it is legally required to.
Joel Makower, co-founder and executive editor of Greener World Media, says that consumers are becoming increasingly wary of so-called greenwash and view it as a sales tactic.
Pushing the green message
Grant and Makower both advocate the use of eco-labelling from independent organisations on packaging to inform consumers over “selective” and “oversimple” advertising. Yet McCann Erickson managing director Chris Macdonald believes that advertising can play an important part of any “green” communications.
He says: “It depends on the brief. Advertising has a role if it is cogent and makes sense.” He says that companies including Marks & Spencer who make an assertion of efforts, such as the retailer’s “Plan B” manifesto, are to be applauded.
However, as Macdonald cautions: “If you are claiming a marketing advantage by saying a product is the ‘greenest’ and this in any way debatable then that is likely to be challenged.”