Cooling Off on Dubious Eco-Friendly Claims

New_york_times_logo_jpegNew York Times writer, Eric Pfanner, explains how The Cannes festival’s reduced focus on all things "green" this year could be an indicator for advertisers’ growing awareness of consumers’ "green fatigue."

Posted July 18, 2008

By Eric Pfanner, The New York Times

Cooling_off_jpegAT an annual gathering of the advertising industry a year ago in
Cannes, the environment was the topic du jour. “Be seen, be green,” one
agency urged on the invitation to its party at a hillside villa.

Al Gore, invited by another agency, delivered a message linked to “An Inconvenient Truth,” his book and film about climate change:
That the ad industry could play an influential role in encouraging
businesses and consumers to change their ways and slow global warming.

The
sun was still beating down on the Côte d’Azur last month as advertising
executives from around the world returned for this year’s festival. But
Mr. Gore was nowhere to be found, and the party buzz was about the
American presidential election, the Euro 2008 soccer tournament and
even the business of advertising itself. Green marketing, while
booming, had lost some of its cachet.

The advertising industry is
quicker than most to pick up on changing consumer tastes and moods, and
it seems to have grasped the public’s growing skepticism over ads with
environmental messages.The sheer volume of these ads — and the
flimsiness of many of their claims — seems to have shot the messenger.
At best, it has led consumers to feel apathetic toward the green claims
or, at worst, even hostile and suspicious of them.

“After 18
months, levels of concern on any issue tend to drop off,” said Jonathan
Banks, business insight director in Britain at Nielsen, the market
research company. “I fear that something similar may happen with this.”

With
everyone from oil companies to dishwasher makers to banks trotting out
their environmental credentials, complaints about greenwashing, or
misleading consumers about a product’s environmental benefits, have
risen.

The Advertising Standards Authority, an
industry-financed group that monitors ad content in Britain, said it
had received 561 complaints from consumers about green claims in 410
ads in 2007, up from 117 complaints about 83 ads the year before.

The
European Advertising Standards Alliance, an umbrella group for similar
organizations across Europe, reported sizable increases in complaints
in other countries, including in Belgium and the Netherlands,
particularly involving automotive advertising.

The guidelines of
the British standards authority say that environmental ads must not be
misleading, but these rules are inadequate to deal with the growing
volume and complexity of green messages, said Matthew Wilson, a
spokesman for the agency. The authority is weighing tighter standards,
as is the Federal Trade Commission in the United States.

As
regulators work out their response, bloggers and other Internet critics
have already started to expose what they see as greenwash advertising.
A French group called l’Alliance Pour la Planète, for example, cites an
ad for a Japanese sport utility vehicle that was billed as having been
“conceived and developed in the homeland of the Kyoto accords,” the
international emissions-reduction agreement.

In cases like this,
it may be the ad’s approach that strikes people as wrong, rather than
the concept of trying to link a brand to environmental concerns, said
Mike Lawrence, executive vice president for corporate responsibility at
Cone, a brand strategy agency in Boston.

The problem, he said,
occurs when marketers make exaggerated claims about a product’s
attributes, which may be fine when selling toothpaste or vacations.
Most people probably know that the toothpaste will not actually make
their teeth sparkle or help them get a date.

But when a company
says its product will improve the environment, consumers can sense if
the claim is puffed up, Mr. Lawrence said. “This can really backfire
with environmental advertising,” he said.

To address this
problem, agencies are advising marketers to avoid vague and
unsubstantiated claims — the kind that bloggers and other critics are
quick to pounce on. Instead, they suggest pointing to a specific step
the advertiser has taken or asking consumers to take a small but
concrete action.

For example, Procter & Gamble,
which makes laundry detergent, has been running a campaign in Britain
that urges consumers to conserve energy by washing clothing at 86
degrees Fahrenheit rather than at higher temperatures.

Similarly,
Reckitt Benckiser, which makes dishwasher detergent, has been
advertising what it says are the environmental benefits of washing
dishes in a machine, rather than by hand; this consumes less water and
energy, the company says. (Skeptics may note that Reckitt does not make
detergent for hand-washing dishes.)

Agency executives say there
is growing demand for specialists who can help companies avoid common
pitfalls, like boasting of one’s green credentials at the wrong time
(after a corporate embarrassment, for instance). Big agencies have been
creating dedicated units to work on environmental campaigns, and
green-focused start-up agencies are proliferating, too.

“We’re
going to get to a point where green is ubiquitous, and you have to do
something pretty different to distinguish yourself,” said Arlene
Fairfield, senior vice president at the DDB Brand Integrity Group in
Seattle.

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