"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.
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.
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 environment.
'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."
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Source: Advertising Standards Authority
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 planet.
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.