GLOBAL: False 'Green' Ads Draw Global Scrutiny

Publisher Name: 
Wall Street Journal

With companies eager to tout their "green" credentials to consumers,


advertising watchdogs in a number of countries are stepping up efforts to


rein in marketers that make false or exaggerated claims.




In one of the latest examples, the United Kingdom's Advertising Standards


Authority found this month that a series of television ads by the


Malaysian Palm Oil Council misleadingly claimed the industry was good for


the environment. In one ad, which appeared on satellite channels across


Europe, Asia and the U.S., a man jogs through a natural rain forest,


interspersed with shots of palm-oil plantations and wildlife. "Malaysia


palm oil. Its trees give life and help our planet breathe," the voice-over


declared.




The problem: Oil-palm plantations, which produce a vegetable oil used in


products such as margarine and soap, have often been planted in illegally


cleared natural rain forests. In neighboring Indonesia, where Malaysian


palm-oil companies own large operations, plantation development is


destroying the natural habitat of species such as the Sumatran elephant,


environmentalists say.




"We concluded that the ad was likely to mislead viewers as to the


environmental benefits of oil-palm plantations, compared with native rain


forest," the U.K. authority ruled.




One limitation with these groups is that the fact-finding process can


sometimes take so long that the offending ad is no longer on the air when


the ruling is issued. That's what happened with the Malaysian Palm Oil


Council, which wasn't affected by this month's decision, because it had


already stopped showing its ad last year. The Advertising Standards


Authority can take as long as a month to make a decision.




From the U.S. to Norway to Belgium, watchdog groups are trying to police


against the rise in bogus environmental marketing, a practice known as


greenwashing. In most cases, these groups are set up by the advertising


industry and run by a third party, and they operate on the honor system.


When the watchdogs are set up, marketers and ad agencies agree to abide by


their rulings, which often means dropping ads that are deemed deceptive.


If the marketers later fail to do so, they run the risk of bad publicity


or possibly even litigation. Only in a few countries, such as Norway, can


regulators impose fines.




Environmental advocates say the increased vigilance is welcome, even if


the watchdogs have limited powers. "Since the climate-change issue is hot,


in Europe there's a load of 'greenwash' advertising," says Paul de Clerck,


a campaigner with Friends of the Earth Europe.




In the U.S., the Federal Trade Commission, which oversees advertising


claims, began hearings this month to determine the kinds of claims that


can genuinely qualify as green marketing. The FTC plans to update its


environmental advertising guidelines, which were last revised in 1998.


Those guidelines set standards for terms such as "recyclable" or


"biodegradable" in the advertising of products. But they don't deal with


standards for trendier environmental claims such as "carbon neutral,"


where a company asserts that it has offset the amount of carbon dioxide (a


heat-trapping greenhouse gas) emitted in making its product.




Sometimes, companies try to knock a rival business's products as bad for


the environment to gain a competitive edge. The National Advertising


Division of the Council of Better Business Bureaus, a U.S. industry-run


advertising body, last year ruled that Born Free LLP, a distributor of


infant feeding bottles, had to drop ads that claimed that the plastic used


in a competitor's bottles was unsafe for both the environment and kids.


The division says it heard no environmental cases from 2000 to 2006, but


has adjudicated six since then.




In Norway, government regulators in September banned all car ads from


stating that their vehicles are "green," "clean" or "environmentally


friendly" on the grounds that all car production leads to more, not fewer,


carbon emissions. The Belgian industry-run, advertising-standard authority


in October ruled that Swedish auto maker Saab Automobile, a unit of


General Motors Corp., must pull a print campaign in which it claimed that


its "Biopower" range of cars make the roads "finally turn green."




Despite the regulatory backlash, companies are often loath to use subtle


language to advertise their environmental claims for fear the ads won't


stand out, says Mike Longhurst, a London-based executive with


McCann-Erickson, a unit of Interpublic Group.




"Clients prefer to say it's good for the environment, rather than it's not


so bad for the environment," Mr. Longhurst says.




Malaysia's palm-oil industry decided to come out with its TV ad because


environmentalists recently have stepped up attacks on palm oil, calling it


a major driver of forest loss: Trees soak up carbon dioxide, and cutting


them down emits huge amounts of the heat-trapping greenhouse gas back into


the atmosphere, spurring global warming.




The Malaysian Palm Oil Council, a grouping of producers, hired TWBA


Worldwide, a unit of New York-based Omnicom Group, to promote the


industry's green credentials. "We decided it was about time we gave a


public-service announcement to the consumer," says Yusof Basiron, chief


executive of the palm-oil council.




But the U.K body ruled that by blending footage of rain forests and


oil-palm plantations, the ads misled the public.




The council maintains that since 1990, all oil-palm plantations in


Malaysia have been planted on already denuded land, not natural rain


forests. It also says it didn't mean to imply that oil-palm plantations


were as biodiverse as rain forests.




"A lot of the implications were something we didn't intend in the ad,"


says Aaron Cowie, chief operating officer of TWBA Worldwide in Malaysia.

AMP Section Name:Globalization
  • 106 Money & Politics
  • 107 Energy
  • 116 Human Rights
  • 122 Pharmaceuticals
  • 181 Food and Agriculture
  • 183 Environment
  • 188 Consumerism & Commercialism
  • 190 Natural Resources
  • 192 Technology & Telecommunications
  • 195 Chemicals
  • 204 Manufacturing