Can we banish polluters from billboards?

Is it time we banned ads from greenwashing fossil fuel companies? Danny Chivers has some answers.

Hundreds of billboards and bus stops – like this one in Brighton, England – have been hacked by activists across Europe as part of the call to #BanFossilAds and stop greenwashing.
DESIGN: NOEL DOUGLAS/INSTALLATION: BRANDALISM

The fossil fuel companies are lying to us. Again.

A recent peer-reviewed study examined the climate claims of ExxonMobil, Chevron, Shell and BP in detail – and found that they amounted to little more than greenwash. All those adverts and announcements about moving to a low-carbon future? In fact, these companies have been increasing their exploration for new oil and gas.

Increasingly sophisticated ads, making carefully ambiguous claims, create the impression of a fossil fuel sector that’s working hard to clean up its act. BP is ‘reimagining energy’. Shell is ‘accelerating to net zero’. But in reality, both are pushing to open up new oil and gas fields which – according to the International Energy Agency – is completely incompatible with keeping global heating below 1.5 degrees Celsius.

The digital space is the latest frontier for the stories they tell. In 2020, the oil and gas sector spent almost $10 million on Facebook advertising in the US alone, which were viewed an estimated 431 million times.

And it’s not just fossil-fuel advertising that’s a problem. Research from Greenpeace Nordic and the New Weather Institute (NWI) has found that, globally, adverts for cars and flights are responsible for up to twice the annual emissions of the country of Spain, thanks to the extra demand they create for driving and flying.

Different high-carbon ads serve different purposes. Some seek to create the false impression that polluting corporations are taking the climate crisis seriously, which helps to deter criticism and protest and maintain their access to the corridors of power. Others aim to directly influence consumers, encouraging and normalizing high-carbon behaviour, often backed-up by some comforting ‘green’ claims. All are causing huge harm in the middle of a climate crisis.

This marketing may also be damaging our mental health. By suggesting we need to choose the right brands (or buy the right offsets) to ‘do our bit’, these adverts are pushing the blame for the climate crisis from the biggest polluters onto the public. At a time when so many of us are wrestling with feelings of climate anxiety, guilt and despair, this is a deeply cynical tactic.

There are people who have been challenging these adverts for a long time – from anti-consumerist groups like Enough and Adbusters, to the ‘subvertising’ tactics of Brandalism (who take over billboards with more ‘honest’ adverts’) or badverts.org. There are also growing numbers of complaints being made about polluters’ misleading marketing to the relevant watchdogs.

But is it time to take the next step and ban major carbon emitters from advertising for good?

A growing movement is calling for just that – and is beginning to get results. Six Dutch cities, including Amsterdam, have passed laws to restrict or ban high-carbon ads. France has passed legislation to ban petrol and diesel adverts and reduce the impact of car advertising, which – though partial and flawed – could be a significant first step towards tougher rules. A Greenpeace-led petition to the European Commission to ban fossil fuel adverts across the EU is building towards the 1 million signatures it needs for consideration.

There are multiple ways for people to take action, including supporting campaigns to ban fossil fuel adverts in your country, city or region.7 You can also report misleading examples to your advertising standards watchdog, and if you’re in the EU, you can sign the petition to the European Commission.

In the words of Andrew Simms of the NWI: ‘We ended tobacco advertising to save lives, now it’s time to do the same for adverts by major climate polluters.’

With thanks to Georgia Whitaker from Greenpeace’s #FossilFreeRevolution campaign.