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Doing More, Saying Less

The ads are back. Corporate environmental image ads, that is. By Joel Makower

The ads are back.

You can find them conveniently located throughout your summer magazine reading -- in newsweeklies, literary magazines, business publications, and women’s fashion glossies.

They are corporate environmental image ads -- a page or two of slick illustrations and gushing text singing the green gospel, at least according to the energy and automotive companies that run them.

A perusal of one representative publication -- the July/August issue of Atlantic magazine -- tells the tale. Here, on pages 4 and 5, sits a two-page ad about how ChevronTexaco, through partnerships with automakers, universities, and government agencies, says it helped reduce new car emissions by 96%. On page 21 is a one-page ad from BP extolling its investments in solar, natural gas, and renewable energy resources. General Motors weighs in on pages 38 and 39 with a spread extolling the virtues of the 235 “magic” hybrid buses the company has deployed on the streets of Seattle.

There's more. Over on page 63, Southern Co., the giant Atlanta-based energy utility, promotes the cleaner air it claims it has helped deliver to it customers through its investments in controlling power-plant emissions. On pages 86 and 87, Ford Motor Co. trumpets “American’s greenest automotive factory,” its newly renovated Rouge River Truck Plant in Michigan. And Shell has commandeered the magazine’s back cover to showcase a businessman who, with Shell’s help, developed a means for large-scale production of ethanol.

What’s behind this apparent surge in companies’ green salesmanship? And why do all of these eco-advertisers come from the energy and transportation sectors?

There’s no clear answer. It could simply be that the recovering economy has loosened these companies’ advertising purse strings. But the real answer is likely not that simple.

For years, corporate image advertising has been a popular means of telling one’s environmental story without the burden of full disclosure or accountability. Green ads can position a company as a caring corporate citizen with a proactive stance on protecting natural resources and local community health -- much as corporate environmental reporting did until the mid 1990s, when shareholders and activists demanded more specific, and more honest, accountings of environmental performance. As such, image ads represent effective communications vehicles for companies under scrutiny by activists, investors, consumers, or regulators. Like energy and automobile companies.

But are such ads the best way to effect one’s image? It’s debatable at best. With consumer trust of big business remaining at cynical levels (though rising in recent months to near pre-Enron scandal levels), it’s unlikely that company-sponsored environmental claims are likely to sway many purchases.

But consumers probably aren’t even the ads’ target. According to Investor Relations Magazine, 42% of portfolio managers say corporate image ads have led them to investigate companies for investment potential. And nearly a third of all money managers admit they bought stock in a company after reading an ad featuring a positive story about that company.

Still, there’s a case to be made that companies might get more bang for their P.R. bucks by saying less and doing more. Suppose, for example, an oil company or auto maker -- or any company, for that matter -- announced it would forgo environmental ads for a year, opting instead to invest that portion of its ad budget into offsetting the climate gases produced by its products or operations? Or that it would donate its eco-ad budget to help improve environmental education in host communities? Imagine the positive press that might generate, the good story the company would have to tell, and the genuine environmental benefits that might result.

Of course, doing even this doesn’t inoculate one’s company from claims that it is using such publicity to distract attention away from its environmental challenges; companies still need to walk their talk.

But talking less would be nice, for a change. And it might speak volumes more than any glossy ad can possibly convey.


Joel Makower is founder of and editor of The Green Business Letter, where this essay originally appeared.

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