U.K. Consumers Catch Companies Committing ‘Green Murder’

Advertising_age_jpegOriginally posted Oct. 8, 2007
on AdvertisingAge.com by Emma Hall

Lexus, Tesco and Others Busted for Making Empty Environmental Claims

Four out of five Britons suspect companies of "getting away with green murder." And they may be right.

"Green murder" is what Chris Arnold, executive creative director of
ethical-marketing company Feel, calls marketers’ exploitation of
environmental ideals to make their companies look good.

"It seems madness when the fundamental purpose of branding is to win trust," he said. 
"With the growth of the ‘honest economy’ fueled by social networking, lying will only get you caught."

They’re already getting found out. According to a survey by Ipsos Mori,
four out of five consumers in the U.K. believe companies pretend to be
ethical just to sell more products. Small wonder: Reputable marketers
including Volkswagen, Lexus, Tesco and RyanAir have all been caught
making empty claims about their green credentials by U.K. watchdog the
Advertising Standards Authority, leading to a clampdown on marketers
who make unproven claims.

Rising claims
And indeed, consumers are getting wise to the
false claims. The ASA received 93 complaints about green claims in 40
different ads in September alone. In September 2006 there were just 10
complaints about eight ads. The number of grievances about
environmental claims last year averaged 33 a month, but since June it
has leapt to an average of 56 a month.

Some marketers are putting out "green briefs" — asking
agencies to find something positive to say about their environmental
impacts — rather than wait until they really have a good case to make.
This results in shallow claims about carbon neutrality or recycling
that are virtually meaningless.

"More and more green claims are being made but the science is
still in development. We need much more robust evidence and clearer
comparisons than we have been seeing," an ASA spokeswoman said. "Low
emissions need to be more defined and we need details of use,
production and manufacture if we are to allow claims that brands are
carbon neutral or recyclable."

Lexus was subjected to a formal investigation by the ASA after
complaints about an ad for an SUV with the headline "High Performance.
Low Emissions. Zero Guilt." The ad was banned because the headline gave
the misleading impression that the car caused little or no harm to the

‘Better for the planet’
Volkswagen promoted its Golf GT TSI
with a similar headline, along with the line, "More power, less
pollution. Better to drive. Better for the planet." The ad was banned
because the claims were too general, despite being relevant in the
car’s own class.

A Volkswagen spokesman said, "Our aim was to communicate the
new progress we have made with the petrol engine. In hindsight, our
problem was misjudging the body of opinion that says all cars are
damaging to the environment. … We do feel some sense of injustice
that we have been penalized for trying to communicate the benefits
offered with complete honesty." 

Neil Henderson, managing director of St Luke’s — widely credited with
creating the U.K.’s first green ad in 2004, for British Telecom — has
some sympathy for Volkswagen. "Green claims are often new and hard to
prove; companies are having to invent benchmarks. Obviously, they are
trying to get a competitive advantage, but the corporate spirit is
generally right," he said. "It’s just that it takes time to get real
change in the corporate supply chain, but advertising and marketing can
move a lot quicker."

Low-cost airline RyanAir also got into trouble for some
ambiguous claims on low emissions, and the U.K.’s biggest supermarket,
Tesco, was reprimanded for misleading customers about food provenance
when the ASA decided that the supermarket’s definition of "local" was
just not local enough.

Truth with a click
How does this happen? "In some cases it’s
because marketing directors are lazy," said Mr. Arnold. "They are so
out of touch with their customers they think they can just ‘green wash’
and suddenly the brand looks good. But the biggest fear a brand has is
not the ASA — it’s ‘brand terrorism’. Now a bunch of 14-year-olds in a
bedroom with a PC can use the simple truth to bring down a
multimillion-dollar brand just by setting up a website, using community
websites or YouTube."

Some marketers, however, are getting it right. Procter &
Gamble’s Ariel has been lauded for a campaign urging people to wash at
30 degrees because it enables consumers to make a difference without
lecturing them and offers a practical way to save money and benefit the

Honda’s "Grrr" spot was another pioneer in successful green
advertising, partly because Japanese companies traditionally have been
spiritually based, working to a "people, profits, planet" mantra that
is a thousand years old but now sounds bang up to date.

Most marketers are genuinely trying to pollute less, reduce
carbon emissions and help reduce climate change, but in the U.K. at
least, they are wasting their energy if they can’t provide robust
evidence to back up every claim they make.

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