INDONESIA: False 'Green' Ads Draw Global Scrutiny

Watchdogs' Rulings Bring Bad Publicity, But Many Lack Bite

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:Greenwash Awards
  • 183 Environment
  • 190 Natural Resources

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