Should fossil fuel ads be banned globally?

Should fossil fuel ads be banned globally?
Guterres in 2012 (credit: Eric Bridiers/US Department of State/Wikimedia Commons)

Last week, UN secretary-general António Guterres became the most high-profile public official to call for a worldwide ban on fossil-fuel advertising.

Comparing fossil-fuel organisations to tobacco companies, Guterres called on the media to stop taking ads from the “godfathers of climate chaos“.

“Many governments restrict or prohibit advertising for products that harm human health, like tobacco,” Guterres said. “I urge every country to ban advertising from fossil-fuel companies. And I urge news media and tech companies to stop taking fossil-fuel advertising.”

The rallying call coincides with a number of countries and councils seeking to institute their own localised bans. In December 2020, Amsterdam moved to ban fossil-fuel ads. France followed suit in August 2022, as did 16 Australian councils, including Sydney.

In the UK, councils in Sheffield and Edinburgh have recently moved to curtail such advertisements, arguing that they are inconsistent with net zero targets.

Meanwhile, a small group of media owners have in recent years begun refusing fossil-fuel ads, namely The Guardian in 2020 and Vox Media in 2021. Most other publishers and major ad sellers including Google and Facebook continue to accept fossil-fuel ads.

For publishers, being picky about which ads to accept is a challenge at a time when the market for digital publishers has been adversely affected by changes to search and social media.

“A business with integrity, The Guardian has strong progressive values that inform our decision-making,” The Guardian‘s chief advertising officer, Imogen Fox, told The Media Leader. “A distinctive choice, we knew that rejecting these adverts would make our lives a bit tougher in the short term, but today, we still believe this was the right thing to do.”

Fox added that The Guardian received “an overwhelming positive reaction from readers and environmental campaigners” for its decision.

“The fact of the matter is, we don’t have the luxury of deferring climate action until a point when it is ‘more convenient’,” she continued. “We hope that others will soon be inspired to follow us.”

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How effective are ad bans?

The ad ban movement has not stopped media agencies from pitching for lucrative accounts from fossil-fuel companies.

Last year, Havas Media received backlash from climate advocates for winning Shell’s media account, with the agency group’s B-corp status placed under review amid pressure from activist group Clean Creatives.

Speaking at The Future of Media conference in London in October, Havas chief Yannick Bolloré defended the decision to represent Shell as a way to create effective change “from within”.

“Even if it’s hard, we need to keep the dialogue open and my belief is that our industry should be able to work with any industry as long as — and this is important — they are themselves on a meaningful transition journey,” he said. He added that he would scrutinise the account to ensure Shell does not participate in greenwashing.

Activist group Ad Free Cities has continued to accuse Shell’s ads of greenwashing since the account move, although the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) declined to investigate those allegations. The ASA had previously upheld a similar complaint against Shell last summer.

“Major fossil-fuel providers are attempting to pivot towards more sustainable practices, yet the core of their business models remains entrenched in fossil fuels, continuing to drive their profits,” noted Responsible Marketing Agency founder and Media Leader columnist Hannah Mirza. “Agencies who are compensated on successful fossil-fuel campaigns will find themselves in a precarious position with tough decisions ahead.”

A spokesperson for the Advertising Association (AA) declined to comment on Guterres’ latest comments.

AA CEO Stephen Woodford has previously argued that while ad bans are “politically high-profile”, they are “very, very unlikely to make much difference” in terms of effectively changing consumer behaviour due to the inelasticity of demand for energy.

“When you think about particularly petrol and diesel, you fill your car up when it’s nearly empty, not when you see an ad for Shell,” he said in 2022, implying that advertising’s effectiveness may be limited depending on the type of good being advertised.

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‘Writing is on the wall’

The timing of Guterres’ comments is noteworthy for coming just weeks in advance of the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity, which has repeatedly been inundated with climate protestors in recent years.

In 2022, Greenpeace stormed the beach area of media holding company WPP and a former Lion winner disrupted the opening ceremony by displaying a sign on stage that read: “No awards on a dead planet“.

Last year, Clean Creatives used a range of tactics to disrupt the event, in particular targeting PR firm Edelman for its collaboration with fossil-fuel companies Chevron, Exxon and Shell.

“The response from the advertising industry to the UN’s statement will be telling,” Mirza explained. “It will highlight which major agencies and holdcos are prepared to take a stand and align with the UN’s directives. Interestingly, the roster of top global agencies with Clean Creatives membership is few, which may be a pre-indication of a lack of commitment to the UN’s cause.”

Jake Dubbins, co-chair of the Conscious Advertising Network and CEO of independent media and creative agency Media Bounty, expressed more optimism for change. Speaking to The Media Leader, he predicted that, just as tobacco advertising was restricted and then banned “as the misinformation tactics of the tobacco industry and the threat of its products to human health became clear”, the same will happen for fossil-fuel advertising.

“It is now inevitable,” he said.

Dubbins suggested the industry cede ground to protestors and world leaders like Guterres on fossil-fuel advertising for both ethical and business reasons.

“The industry should see this as a tipping point, but one of opportunity. The UK’s net zero economy is growing, while the writing is on the wall for fossil fuels and their ads,” he continued.

“Will the industry fully embrace the opportunities of the transition and secure a liveable future or will it risk the maintenance of the status quo at the cost to its people, its non-fossil-fuel clients and its reputation? The time to lead is now.”

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