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Should high carbon goods face advertising restrictions, like tobacco does?

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Anyone who has spent the last month glued to the European football championship has been fed an unrelenting menu of adverts for high carbon products. Amid the high stakes and drama of the tournament, the backdrop was dominated by adverts for oil and gas giant Gazprom and airline Qatar Airways snaking around the players. Qatar Airways may have promised fans it would help them "fly greener," while VW chose to showcase its new electric vehicles, but as ever carbon intensive and plastic-touting industries were highly visible.

Campaigners have long slammed professional sports bodies' cozy relationship with their polluting sponsors, warning that by providing a high profile platform for companies to promote environmentally destructive products and behaviors to a mass audience, organizations are jeopardizing the future of professional sports itself. Fossil fuel extraction, internal combustion engine vehicles and flying are among the most carbon intensive activities and products out there; not only do they produce pollution that threatens the respiratory health of athletes, these products are contributing to global temperature increases and the growing frequency and intensity of extreme weather events that threaten the future of major open-air competitions, from the melting of winter sports to the flooding of football grounds.

The issue of sports advertising is part of a broader debate raging around the social license of adverts for high carbon activities and services in light of the escalating climate emergency and the U.K.'s legally binding climate goals.

There is growing recognition from authorities of the need to improve monitoring of so-called "greenwashing" in marketing, with both the Competition and Markets Authority and the Advertising Standards Authority currently revisiting their approach to the issue. The competition watchdog aims to publish new guidelines on green claims for all businesses later this summer, while the advertising body is in the middle of a review of its existing approach to climate issues, having conceded it can "go further" in cracking down on dubious green claims. But environmental campaigners are calling for faster and bolder action to be taken, and not just to tackle green claims that are false or misleading, but also to impose greater control on adverts that promote high carbon activities and services that encourage or lionize behaviors known to damage the climate. After all, the tobacco, gambling and fast food industries face increasingly stringent restrictions on who they can market to and how they can communicate, why should carbon intensive industries face similar rules?

It is against this backdrop that campaigners have submitted a complaint to the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) over a full-page advert that ran in the Guardian magazine last month which depicts a 4x4 traveling through a sun-dappled forest under the strap line "Life is so much better without restrictions."

The issue of sports advertising is part of a broader debate raging around the social license of adverts for high carbon activities and services in light of the escalating climate emergency and the U.K.'s legally binding climate goals.

The Badvertising campaign group contend the advert breaks the existing advertising code, because it misleads consumers into believing Land Rover vehicles would be better left untouched by environmental restrictions. They argue the SUV featured boasts emissions that are far in excess of the EU target emission level for an average car, and as such undermines ongoing efforts to cut the carbon footprint of road transport.

"To have an advert cropping up which has the lack of self-awareness to promote a car whose emissions are over three times the recommended emissions target for an average vehicle in Europe, and to place it in a natural setting — precisely the kind of natural setting that will suffer [from climate change] — and to use a form of language which is almost encouraging reckless behavior and appealing to a sense of being able to drive oversized, highly polluting cars without restriction — it beggars belief," Andrew Simms, co-director of the New Weather Institute, which runs the Badvertising campaign, told BusinessGreen.

 

The Land Rover ad featured on 12th June 2021 in the Guardian magazine

The Land Rover ad featured on 12th June 2021 in the Guardian magazine

Research conducted by the Badvertising campaign has revealed most SUVs are found in urban and suburban areas, not the rural regions and protected habitats that commonly feature in adverts. As such, the complaint argues the forest setting pictured in Land Rover's advert is also misleading. "Forests are sensitive ecosystems not suitable for large SUVs," it reads. "Forests are frequently protected, carry restrictions and hence to promote unrestricted driving is misleading."

The campaigners have also argued the advert exploits frustration over lockdown measures introduced to tackle a public health emergency to promote a product that ultimately hurts public health by producing air pollution. And they claim the appeal for a life free of restriction is "extremely harmful" in the wake of the direct link between unchecked consumption and climate breakdown that threatens human society.

Simms argues the advert promotes a lifestyle "completely out of keeping with the response necessary to prevent climate disasters" and was evidence of "tone deafness and willful blindness" among certain companies. "A line needs to be drawn," he said.

On top of claiming Land Rover's ad falls foul of the existing advertising code, Badvertising is using the complaint to demand the self-regulating body deliver a rapid reassessment of the way it works in relation to regulating products that promote environmentally destructive behaviors. 

The ASA would argue it is in the midst of a major program of worked dubbed "Environment and Climate Change" that will see it review its positions on a number of climate issues and ramp up proactive monitoring of green claims. Initially scheduled for last year but delayed due to COVID, the program of work will see the agency look at legislation being developed by the U.K. and other governments to police green claims before deciding whether the advertising code rules need to be updated. It will see the regulator step up its proactive monitoring of green claims made by companies through efforts to scrape and monitor environmental claims online so as to crack down on those that could be misleading. It is also considering launching investigations into fast-evolving areas — for instance, recyclability or net-zero claims — where the ASA currently has no official position.

But Simms argues the regulator needs to deliver a "far more rapid reassessment" of advertising that promotes dangerously unsustainable behaviors. "As a regulator of advertising, it needs to understand these adverts have material effects validating and normalizing forms which themselves are damaging," he said. "They need to go through a process to decide how advertising can be controlled so it is consistent with the U.K. pursuing its climate objectives."

The ASA has long pointed out that the power to introduce a blanket ban on product categories lies with the government. "We just don't have the powers on the consumer protection regime to ban a product which is legally bought and sold," ASA director of complains and investigations Miles Lockwood told BusinessGreen in an interview last month. Legislation of this type has been brought in before, most notably with the ban introduced in the early 2000s on tobacco products. And just last month the U.K. government announced plans to introduce legislation to outlaw junk food advertising online and before 9 p.m. on TV from 2023. The department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport was considering a request for comment about whether it planned to align its advertising policy with the government's climate goals at press time.

But Simms insists the regulator can and should do more to erode the acceptability of advertising products that have a damaging impact on the environment, even if it does not have the power to introduce a blanket ban. The ASA needs to change how it operates on a day-to-day basis and work proactively to crack down on offending ads to ensure ads promoting dangerous activities become "unthinkable at the point of the ad agency brainstorm," he said. This also involves taking on more cases than it does today, he noted, highlighting research that found just 22 percent of contested adverts are investigated by the regulator and only 2 percent upheld.

Simms also emphasizes how the media companies that are paid to run ads have a role to push advertisers to rethink their approach. "Running an ad like this today, with the known climate and health consequences of it, is as bad as running an ad for cigarettes, and I think the Guardian should rethink," he said.

Running an ad like this today, with the known climate and health consequences of it, is as bad as running an ad for cigarettes, and I think the Guardian should rethink.

The same goes for the sports bodies that broker major sponsorship deals with companies touting high carbon products and services, he argues. "Sporting bodies are a billboard for high carbon living, and we are calling on sporting bodies and authorities in the run up to the Olympics to stop accepting sponsorship from fossil fuel companies and high carbon products and services," Simms said. "Petrol engine cars and aviation are the main offenders."

A spokesperson from Guardian News Media emphasized its advertising policy was under review, and that the acceptance of advertising and sponsorship did not affect its editorial position. "We are free to, and often do, challenge the activities of companies and organizations that are also our advertisers and sponsors," the spokesperson said. "We keep our advertising policy under review."

The Guardian set a precedent for a U.K. newspaper when it announced it would ban fossil fuel advertising in January 2020. However, it stopped short of extending this rule to advertising of high carbon activities such as cars and holidays, citing concerns about budgetary impacts. "Stopping those ads would be a severe financial blow and might force us to make significant cuts to Guardian and Observer journalism around the world," the newspaper said when it announced its new policy.

Land Rover and its creative agency Spark 44 did not respond to a request for comment at press time. Meanwhile, the ASA said it was "carefully reviewing" the complaint to determine if there are grounds for further action, but noted that it could take months to make a decision depending on the complexity on the case.

Whether the Land Rover complaint has the mobilizing effect that the Badvertising group hopes remains to be seen. But it is clear the social acceptability of adverts that promote high carbon activities is changing rapidly as climate impacts become more visible in people's everyday lives and the government becomes more vocal about its mission to tackle climate change. While the ASA's effort to review its practices in relation to climate and the environment is hugely welcome, the question remains whether the regulator intends to play the active role in disincentivizing unsustainable behaviors that many campaigners believe is desperately needed.

Meanwhile, as awareness of the climate impacts of high carbon activities grows, it remains to be seen whether viewers of Euro 2024 or Euro 2028 will again be blasted with ads for aviation and oil and gas companies, or whether electric vehicle firms and renewables generators come to dominate the billboards of the 2020s. And if polluters do continue to use sport to hawk their wares, could a new generation of socially engaged players eventually hit back? Cristiano Ronaldo may have embarrassed Euro 2020 sponsor Coca-Cola with his pointed press conference message for people to drink water, but it is surely only a matter of time before a footballer one day offers a similar rebuke to the game's polluting partners. One way or another, the sponsor roster for major sporting championships over the next few decades is set to provide a good indication as to how fast the net-zero transition is proceeding.

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