We know advertising isn’t carbon-neutral. But is it carbon-evil?
There’s certainly a lot of ‘badvertising’ out there, for high-polluting products like fossil fuels, airlines, and SUVs. It could also be argued that advertising in general encourages unsustainable overconsumption, and that our industry generates enormous quantities of carbon emissions, from sources like overseas shoots and brightly lit billboards. On the other hand, the industry does seem to have ‘woken up’ recently, with what seems like 50% of all commercials being purpose-driven… some of which may, in reality, be awards-driven, but not all.
It could be argued that advertising in general encourages unsustainable overconsumption, and that our industry generates enormous quantities of carbon emissions.
Advertising is also a key channel for brands and governments to inform consumers on what they can do better. And one could further make a case that, compared to other industries, advertising is on the side of the angels, since much of what we do is intended to create intangible value – in the form of brand value – which would seem to be less damaging to the planet than the actual manufacture of tangible goods.
But the question of whether advertising is innocent or guilty may ultimately not be the right question to ask, since advertising is, after all, just a tool, and like all tools, is only moral or immoral depending on whether it is used in a moral or immoral way. So, the proper question may be one that we, the industry practitioners, actually need to ask ourselves: are we as companies, and as individuals, doing the right things? And could we be doing more?
The question of whether advertising is innocent or guilty may not be the right question to ask.
First of all, it has to be admitted that many of us are probably doing the wrong things – like producing ads for companies that are causing climate change. Will we one day look back on the shoots we did for airlines and gas-guzzling motor vehicles in the same way that we now look back on tobacco advertising; great budgets, often highly creative, but ultimately… harmful? Looking back to the print ad from 2005 for the UK’s Tesco supermarket [above] helps illustrate the point.
It was made was just 16 years ago, but attitudes have changed considerably in that period. No company today would boast of the gratuitous food miles promoted here. Instead, companies are desperate to trumpet their green credentials. Perhaps overly desperate. During the Euro 2020 football tournament, Qatar Airways ran a pitch-side advertising campaign that has been accused of greenwashing.
Will we one day look back on the shoots we did for airlines and gas-guzzling motor vehicles in the same way that we now look back on tobacco advertising?
According to anti-advertising activist group Adfree Cities, the ad (which reads ‘Qatar Airways – Fly Greener’) is misleading because aviation remains a highly polluting industry and Qatar Airways owns over 250 aircraft. Like most airlines, it does offer passengers a voluntary carbon offset scheme, but the amount of carbon accounted for is tiny relative to the amount emitted, and does not apply to its cargo operations (Qatar Airways is now the largest cargo airline in the world).
And what about all those fantastic ads we make for go-anywhere four wheel drive vehicles? They’ve been very successful. Sales are up, with the result that the International Energy Agency reported that carbon emissions fell across all sectors in 2020 except for one – SUVs. And the fossil fuel companies themselves? A detailed report by environmental law firm ClientEarth into the advertising produced by the major oil companies concluded that “many companies are responding to the climate crisis with ‘green’ marketing, while their core business remains fossil fuels. Their adverts are using greenwashing to distract the public from the harm their products cause to people and planet.”
Once our industry had shifted the landscape of capitalism from needs-based to wants-based production, we created a mentality of wasteful consumption.
Beyond the obvious culprits of high-carbon industries, it could be argued that advertising is contributing to the destruction of the planet by causing overconsumption in general. Indeed, mass consumer advertising only arose, by some accounts, to help companies sell consumers more stuff once all their actual needs had been met. And once our industry had shifted the landscape of capitalism from needs-based to wants-based production, we created a mentality of wasteful consumption.
Getting very granular, we have to admit that those of us who create and produce advertising are responsible for more than a little wasteful consumption ourselves. Whether that be flying a crew of 50 halfway around the world to create an advert for a new type of margarine, transporting our equipment in convoys of diesel trucks, or congregating in the south of France for certain industry events. Digital advertising panels in particular have a high rate of energy consumption and therefore generate large quantities of carbon emissions (a single billboard may emit as much energy as 37 homes).
At the same time, our industry has never been as purpose-driven as it is now. We’re producing incredible advertising like There's a Rang-Tan in My Bedroom, an attack on palm oil production, by Mother London for Greenpeace, and the Palau Pledge, by HOST/HAVAS Sydney, which asked all visitors to the Pacific nation of Palau to sign a pledge at passport control to help protect its environment. And although some fossil fuel companies may be using advertising as a tool for greenwashing, our industry is also a vital channel for brands to talk about their genuine sustainability credentials, and for governments to communicate new legislation around recycling, restrictions on private car use, and emissions targets.
Our industry has never been as purpose-driven as it is now.
As I’ve already mentioned, it could be argued that although advertising does encourage consumption, it does so in an environmentally friendly way, creating intangible value (you pay more for a branded product because of the ‘halo effect’ of the brand). Without advertising, as Ogilvy executive Rory Sutherland argues in his entertaining TED talk, manufacturers would be forced to put more tangible value into their products, which would inevitably require more raw materials and more energy, and hence more carbon emissions.
Ultimately, as Uncommon London’s head of planning Tobey Duncan argued on shots back in January, “advertising is dialogue”. In other words, advertising is just a conversation, and conversations are neither inherently good nor inherently bad; it all depends on the content of that conversation.
Second Amendment diehards in America love to point out that ‘guns don’t kill people, people do’ but it has to be said that if guns are just a tool, they are an inherently violent one. Advertising, on the other hand, is much more ethically neutral, a tool that is capable of good or ill, depending entirely on how it is used.
Advertising is ethically neutral, a tool that is capable of good or ill, depending entirely on how it is used.
So, who determines that? To a large extent, governments do. Just as governments eventually banned tobacco advertising, it may be that legislation will follow on high-carbon industries. There are signs this is now happening – a council in Somerset in England has already voted to ban adverts for high-carbon products from appearing on its media properties. And on December 18th 2020, Amsterdam city council adopted a motion, supported by a number of political parties, to ban advertising for high-carbon products (fossil fuels and holiday flights).
On February 18th this year, [Dagens Nyheter] published a new policy announcing it was dropping ads for fossil fuels, flights, and cars.
But what about the media companies themselves, who have much more money on the line than a council in Somerset does? Television advertising of tobacco products was banned in the UK in 1965, but continued for many years on billboards and in print. By that precedent, most will no doubt cling to the revenue for as long as they can, but a few are already taking action. The top Swedish daily newspaper Dagens Nyheter has been a frontrunner in terms of climate change reporting, even giving Greta Thunberg the job of Editor for a day. On February 18th this year, the newspaper published a new policy announcing it was dropping ads for fossil fuels, flights, and cars.
Could the creative industry be doing more? Of course. To an extent, advertising is a service industry and we service the needs of our clients. If our clients are high-carbon emitters, that’s not something we can change; it’s consumer pressure and then government regulation that creates change, not a production company producer on a shoot grilling an oil company marketer on how genuine their commitment to green energy is.
If our clients are high-carbon emitters, that’s not something we can change; it’s consumer pressure and then government regulation that creates change.
On the other hand, many advertising agencies refused to take on tobacco clients long before all tobacco advertising was banned. We may be a service industry, but that means we are free to withhold our services if we choose. At The Moon Unit, for example, we don’t work with fossil fuel companies. We’re now in our third year of this commitment, after signing the Clean Creatives pledge, and have turned down numerous jobs because of it. Well, they do say a principle isn’t a principle until it costs you money.
They do say a principle isn’t a principle until it costs you money.
Plus there is a lot we can and should be doing as individuals. In reality, all of us are making choices every day in terms of the products we buy and our behaviour, and it’s these choices which will ultimately dictate whether our planet is able to recover from human-caused environmental damage or not. If you want to take more direct action, there are numerous groups you can join, and petitions you can sign. For example, environmental activists Possible have created a petition to ban the advertising of SUVs.
Advertising is just a tool, but it’s up to us to decide how we use it.
Finally, we must accept that, by virtue of the industry we work in, we are in a position of influence. Therefore, there is a higher level of consciousness that we can (and should) be bringing to our work. Advertising is just a tool, but it’s up to us to decide how we use it.