Beyond Greenwashing: Using advertising in the fight against climate change

Beyond Greenwashing: Using advertising in the fight against climate change

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How to fight climate change with advertising?

Advertising agencies have had their hand in perpetuating climate change by obscuring the science, making climate-wrecking products seem socially acceptable and desirable, and misleading consumers through greenwashing. Companies resistant to meaningful transformation have derailed and delayed climate action through "targeted lobbying and doubt-inducing media strategies." The fossil fuel sector is misleading using media campaigns to cast doubt on the science of climate change itself.

Greenwashing and its consequences

Advertising agencies skilfully craft the misleading messages of these companies into slick and compelling advertising campaigns. The ads are often so convincing that they persuade even well-intentioned and informed consumers into believing climate misinformation. 

"Advertising must change at the speed of climate change because creativity isn't neutral." Forbes Magazine
Beyond Greenwashing: Using advertising in the fight against climate change
Advertising must change at the speed of climate change because creativity isn't neutral.
Credit: Plan A

The historical and current context of greenwashing

Fossil fuel corporations like Exxon, BP and Shell spend more money on advertising to greenwash their products than on real sustainability and decarbonisation efforts. Greenwashing and climate misinformation are misleading consumers, creating a false sense of security around corporate climate responsibility, and distracting from the real work of decarbonising our economy. In a time of planetary crisis, greenwashing is irresponsible, unethical, and downright dangerous.

The historical and current context of greenwashing
Did you know that BP was the first company to coin "carbon footprint" with its advertising campaign?
Credit: Plan A

Using advertising to spread climate disinformation is nothing new. The fossil fuel sector has been using marketing to sow confusion and inaction since they realised, back in the 1970s, that the burning of ancient carbon was irrevocably warming the planet. The tactics have changed, but the outcome is the same: delaying the transition to green and renewable energy. 

Example of greenwashing advertising for climate change
The forgotten oil ads that told us climate change was nothing.
Credit: The Guardian

Advertisers have been complicit in the wrecking of our climate. From denying the crisis, to scare-mongering about the economic consequences of moving away from fossil fuels, to placing the blame on consumers (BP first coined the term carbon footprint), the campaigns have been relentless and successful in delaying action. If one looks at the ad campaigns of fossil fuel companies today, it would seem they are leading the transition to green energy when nothing could be further from the truth. It is the same bag of tricks they have been using since the 1970s, with a contemporary greenwashing gloss.

Leveraging advertising for climate advocacy

But what if creatives at the top advertising agencies used their powers of persuasion for good? What role could advertising then play in advancing climate solutions? While "advertising defends the destructive oil and gas industry, greenwashes brands and drives consumption, its creativity and storytelling could change the course of climate change." 

The power of climate-focused advertising

A recent study by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication found that targeted advertising managed to shift republican views on climate change. This power of persuasion has tremendous implications for elections and policy action:

New Climate Voices [was] a campaign designed to convince Republicans that climate change is happening, human-caused, and harmful… The advertisements featured messengers and content that were expected to be effective with this audience. In one video, Dr. Katharine Hayhoe, a climate scientist and evangelical Christian, speaks about the connection between her Christian faith and climate change. In another video, Air Force General Ron Keys explains that climate change poses a national security threat and creates challenges for the U.S. military. In another, former U.S. Congressman Bob Inglis (R–SC) describes how his conservative values inspire his drive for climate action. The campaign had large positive effects on the climate change beliefs and attitudes of Republicans in the two congressional districts.”

The role of culture and storytelling in climate action

Advertisers can also pull the levers for change by banning fossil fuel companies from their client rosters. It is not unprecedented for the advertising industry to take an ethical stance. For instance, marketing for the tobacco industry is no longer prestigious; most firms won't touch them with a 10-foot pole. If the advertising industry shunned climate-wrecking clients like it has cigarette companies, it would be a huge win for the future of our planet. But advertisers can go beyond reducing harm. 

As Favianna Rodrigues writes in her essay "Harnessing Cultural Power'' in the All We Can Save anthology, "culture is in a constant battle for our imagination. It is our most powerful tool to inspire the social change these times demand." The climate crisis requires storytellers to guide us to a new future and move the collective imagination towards a fossil-free future. Advertising agencies are powerful storytellers with global reach. The impact could be extraordinary if agencies decide to stop peddling climate inaction. Marketing has not only the power to shun the fossil fuel agency and make greenwashing taboo, it can also shift the cultural zeitgeist.

The role of culture and storytelling in climate action
What will you tell your kids about climate change?
Credit: Plan A

Stories are powerful, and the ones we tell today will create the world we live in tomorrow. In many ways, today's advertising and creative agencies are contemporary storytellers, and we need them on the side of climate action. There is a small but growing movement within the advertising community to push back against fossil fuel advertising, greenwashing and climate misinformation. Recently, advertising professional Gustav Martner returned his Cannes Lion award in protest, saying he would retrieve it once advertising instituted a fossil fuels ban. 

Martner is not alone, and the creative industry is starting to organise itself. For instance, Clean Creatives is "a global network of creative professionals with a shared mission to use our power, platform and influence to drive action and awareness on the climate and ecological emergency." Clean Creatives urges creatives not to cross the line and refuse to work for climate-wrecking clients

The future of advertising in a climate-just world

The advertising industry must pick a side. Science demands we take drastic climate action, and new regulations will make greenwashing harder to pull off without penalty. If a company's sustainability plans involve smoke and mirrors, they will become uncompetitive, penalised, and irrelevant. On the other hand, companies that meaningfully adapt and implement decarbonisation will become increasingly competitive. 

With pressure from activists, consumers, the creative industry, and increasingly strict policy regulations, the time is ripe for the advertising industry to say no to greenwashing and fossil fuel ads and commit to a climate-just future. And there is so much work to be done. A whole new story about our future is yet to be written. 

If your business wants to be a driver of positive change, book a demo with Plan A today and let us build a fossil-free world, together. 

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