Adland Has Oil on Its Hands—Now Is Its Chance to Make Things Right

The ad industry can have an important role in battling climate change

The concept of a personal carbon footprint was popularized by Ogilvy in 2005, as part of an ad campaign for BP.

Yep, just like diamond engagement rings, George Foreman Grills and Father’s Day, your carbon footprint was a strategy cooked up by Adland to shape demand and to sell more stuff.

More than 15 years later and we seem to still be falling into the same trap. In September, British Gas launched its “This Is What Sustainability Looks Like” campaign, showing us how we can do our bit by dutifully not overfilling our kettles.

But in reality, even if we never had a cup of tea ever again (God forbid!) or if we eliminated 100% of our emissions for the rest of our lives, it’s estimated this would save just one second’s worth of emissions from the global energy sector.

Unfortunately, this just isn’t a cup-of-tea-sized problem and shifting the responsibility onto the general public is a perfect example of how the ad industry has the power to load the dice, even if that comes at the expense of our planet.

The role of advertising on the world stage

It’s little wonder then that with the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) upon us, we’ve seen a sharp rise in anti-advertising sentiment

Luckily, COP26, which will be held in Glasgow from Oct. 31 to Nov. 12, is the perfect opportunity to redress our priorities and to start to interrogate the systemic changes our industry can be a part of for the better.

COP26 is an annual event where 30,000 delegates and over 120 world leaders meet to discuss a global response to the climate emergency. COP has a history of forging groundbreaking diplomatic consensus, such as the Paris Agreement in 2015. This year is especially important because it’s the first “five-year review” that was baked into the agreement (delayed by a year due to the Covid-19 pandemic).

These reviews are an opportunity for countries to double down with even greater commitments to reduce emissions. Current 2015 commitments would result in a global temperature increase of three degrees, which experts agree would be disastrous, so to call these reviews important is a bit of an understatement.

Of course, the private sector has a huge role to play in the success or failure of these commitments—in part, evidenced by the huge name brand sponsors supporting this event, including Unilever, Sky, Microsoft and GSK.  And with marketing sitting on the P&L as one of their biggest cost centers, our industry is going to have to step up.

So with the event just days away, I have three suggestions for how we can do just that.

Don’t add fuel to the fire

We all work in advertising because we believe it’s effective, right? So let’s stop using our superpowers to increase fossil fuel extraction.

I understand “whataboutism” can be a strong deterrent against this move. Many questioned The Guardian when they banned fossil fuel advertising, asking why they wouldn’t also block ads for any product with a significant carbon footprint, such as cars or holidays.

This is a complicated issue and there are no hard and fast rules, so this reaction is tempting and, in fact, often not wrong. But changes are happening. For example, the CEO of WPP, Mark Read, recently told shareholders they have turned down work from clients if they “don’t share our values.”

Read’s approach is bang on the money, literally. He reported, “demand is off the scale” for ESG-related work and has reflected on the exciting commercial opportunity behind more purposeful behaviors.

It may be a tough conversation but doing nothing may soon be tougher. The Clean Creatives Collective has produced The F-List 2021, highlighting 90 global advertising companies working for the fossil fuel industry.

So, let’s all get off that list and on the right side of history.

Invest in new sparks 

An important element of COP26 conversations will be focused on harnessing market forces within a globalized economy. We need wealthy nations (who profited from climate change during the Industrial Revolution) to now invest in the expensive but clean solutions available today. These market forces will create demand, spur innovation and drive the prices down in the future.

Within the ad industry, there are many green innovations we can proactively invest in right now, from Green Ad Tags to compostable vegetable inks.

The British Gas “This Is What Sustainability Looks Like” OOH activation used air cleaning technology to purify the atmosphere around them, with one poster removing pollution from 524 cars every day. I suspect these posters were more expensive, but I don’t doubt they were also more impactful—both for the planet and for the business.

Give oxygen to the right flames

Our industry has a responsibility to fund quality climate journalism, not least because a free press speaks truth to power, and right now, all of that power is sitting in some stuffy Glaswegian conference room deciding the future of our planet.

Not only is it the right thing to do, but as climate coverage becomes more urgent and more ubiquitous, the commercial opportunity is also undeniable. Bloomberg says its “green” vertical is one of its strongest platforms for driving subscription growth. It’s an opportunity for brands to tap into a passionate and highly engaged audience.

Meanwhile, with the same rigor and passion, we must simultaneously defund those with aggressively contrarian views—effectively “de-platforming” climate science denial through the use of controlled, human-vetted allow lists.

YouTube’s recent policy updates, banning the monetization of climate misinformation, is an extremely positive—if rather belated—step forwards.

This action works. Earlier this year, The Daily Express was called out by activist group Stop Funding Heat for quoting a prominent climate science denier. An advertiser responded, publicly promising to review the misinformation, and within 24 hours the article had been removed.

It’s time to get fired up

To frame the enormity of COP26 and the conversations that will be had within those walls—the technology already exists to solve our problem. Direct air capture technology can pull greenhouse gasses out of the atmosphere and put it back where we found it, underground. But deploying this tech at a significant magnitude to solve this crisis would cost around 10 trillion dollars—over half of the GDP of the USA, every year.

Unless you have that under the sofa, our job as advertisers is to get bolder and braver and to honestly interrogate how we use our significant scale and influence to shape the market forces around these potential solutions.

15 years ago we managed to persuade the world that their footprint was the problem. Today we can unite in lockstep, behind the politicians, corporations and news organizations who are making it everyone’s problem. Today, we can create a stampede.

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