Greenwashing: an unserious word for a serious conversation
If greenwashing in media and advertising is such a major concern, it doesn’t seem to be working very well.
This is a fantastic ad. And it’s nothing to do with Christmas!
Channel 4 is right to ask questions about whether those in power are ‘doing enough’ about climate change.
Why this ad works: it taps into this widespread cultural belief that beneath a dry corporate facade, people who work in Big Oil can barely repress their orgiastic urges to consume.
Why else would a rational human work so hard to screw up the planet?
Because I’m so greedy, so horny, so desperate to be off my tits on coke and champagne that I will literally end life on Earth in order to satisfy my carnal urges.
That makes it a fantastic ad. It’s a fantastic story. But like many great stories, it’s based on a fair amount of bullshit.
But consumers appreciate (some) bullshit
There’s always been a role for bullshit in advertising, an industry of commercial storytelling. Some might even say it’s a foundational pillar. Some might even have a fancy word for it: creativity.
“The Happiest Place on Earth”; “Taste the Rainbow”; “Because You’re Worth It”. Inspiring words, evocative imagery, understanding of a target audience, and cutting through the noise.
Strictly speaking, it’s all bullshit. Unverifiable and unfalsifiable hyperbole.
But the reason we don’t have a bunch of dead bodies cluttering up our pavements because people really thought “Red Bull Gives You Wings” is because we get it. You want to sell me something so you’re entertaining me with a bit of bullshit. So thanks for entertaining me, but now go away and let my subconscious decide whether I’ll buy your thing in future.
Unfortunately it now seems that people who work in advertising or criticise advertising don’t even understand what it is they’re unhappy about.
If greenwashing is real, it’s failed
The furore over Havas winning Shell’s global media recently is a case in point. How dare this advertising and media agency take all this dirty money from a fossil fuel company? By bullshitting on behalf of Big Oil, they’re committing the sin of “greenwashing”.
If greenwashing was ever a thing, it’s failed miserably. Shell is, according to one survey, the UK’s most hated brand.
Fossil-fuel producers don’t need to advertise in the same way that other consumer goods do. Demand for petrol is inelastic and completely fungible: no one cares at all about petrol stations other than what the price is and how far away it is.
And these companies do invest in renewable energy technology. Maybe not enough and, to its immense credit, there are now rules about ‘greenwashing’ set down by the UK’s Advertising Standards Authority. But if it’s matter of principle rather than details, then why is it any different to allowing an alcohol brand to talk about alcohol-free variants, or letting gambling operators tell people “If the fun stops?”
This is still the communications business
It’s important that marketing supports this change, too. My hunch is that we’re not going to bring about a green revolution without massive investment and application from incumbent energy giants, as well as from countries like the US, China and India. Like so much else in the 21st Century, the UK is barely anywhere to be seen on the global stage when it really counts.
We should be calling on these companies to talk more about what they’re doing to change, not trying to shut them up when they’re willing to pay good money to tell us. I’d like to think most people are sophisticated enough to understand the bigger picture, i.e., not fall victim to ‘greenwashing’.
Big Oil also benefits from an ad agency to change its corporate culture. Many of Havas’ accusers point to the company’s B Corp status being at odds with working for such a client. B Corp is reportedly reviewing the matter. But this completely dismisses the prospect of an ad agency being influential as a driver of change. Do we not want a company like Shell to forge deeper ties with B Corp companies and help drive faster change to sustainability?
I questioned Havas’s CEO last month, Yannick Bolloré, about how this happens in practice. Bolloré talked about bringing Shell on a “transition journey” and indicated there were circumstances in which Havas would drop Shell as a client if it were found not to be moving forward on that journey. Listen to the interview yourself and decide whether you are convinced.
‘Conscious’ advertising means we need to stop dreaming
If you subscribe to The Media Leader newsletter, you will have seen ads recently to promote the upcoming Conscious Advertising Network conference, Conscious Thinking on 16 November. It’s important to support the aims of CAN and this conference is a much-needed opportunity to have meaningful conversations about greenwashing, this industry’s future in a more sustainable world, and what practical things we can all be doing now to help.
What it absolutely should not be is a forum of finger-pointing and cheap, lazy blame-gaming. The very word “greenwashing” is an unserious word for what should be a serious conversation.
I have interviewed CAN’s founders Harriet Kingaby and Jake Dubbins about how it makes decisions, too. It’s not clear-cut, when you’re trying to promote “conscious” advertising, where to draw the line between moral idealism and the impure pragmatism of bringing people with you.
For example, IPG has been working with Esso (ExxonMobil) for a century. Why is it okay for IPG Mediabrands to be part of CAN? Co-founder Jake Dubbins told me in April: “[W]e need to have a big tent. Just getting the indies, or those without fossil fuel clients to sign up would not have the large-scale impact we need to have.”
We all have skid marks on our pants
If you really believe that no energy company should have access to advertising, you’re simply in the wrong business.
Gambling ruins lives. Alcohol kills people. Smartphones and social media can be detrimental to our mental health and ability to concentrate. Sugar wrecks our health. Meat is industrialised murder. That’s an entire TV ad break for you through an uncompromising lens of virtue.
We need to understand where we are as a society and the power of media and advertising to bring positive change. Channel 4 is doing what it should do: promote a series of shows dedicated to asking tough questions about climate change and more should be done.
But let’s not stop advertising doing what it should be doing too, put some bullshit out into the world to help us sell stuff that isn’t always good for us.
Because unless you’ve somehow forgotten: Channel 4, like the vast majority of media, is dependent on advertising. All these big, bad brands are funding the very media that is ridiculing them for having oil skid marks on their pants.
And that’s how it should be. Mess with that, and you’re destroying a key pillar of a pluralistic society, which is to encourage debate from different viewpoints. We need to protect the sustainability of our democratic culture, too.
Omar Oakes is editor-in-chief of The Media Leader and leads the publication’s TV coverage.