Clean Creatives: the advertising agencies rejecting fossil fuels

When it comes to the climate crisis, we’re all now well aware of the detrimental role that the fossil fuel industry has played. The oil and gas giants — Shell, BP, ExxonMobil, Chevron to name a few — have built their companies around the extraction and burning of fossil fuels, profiting from emitting dangerous amounts of greenhouse emissions into the atmosphere.

These companies have a lot to answer for. But they didn’t cause this mess alone. They’ve been supported in their quest for extreme wealth by countless others, both individuals, companies, and governments. Many of these supporters have gone unknown or unnoticed in the public eye, and it’s time for that to change.

One huge way in which the fossil fuel industry has been supported over the years is advertising, which has played a huge role in our current reliance on fossil fuels for energy.

Fossil fuel companies have been greenwashing for decades…

Back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, oil and gas companies were at the forefront of research into all things fossil fuels, including the emissions generated when fossil fuels are burnt to generate energy.

Researchers employed by ExxonMobil, for instance, published a paper in 1982 entitled entitled ‘CO2 Greenhouse Effect: Technical Review’ which predicted that CO2 levels would reach up to 560 parts per million by 2060, double the pre-industrial level, and that this would increase average global temperatures by 2°C. This paper was circulated internally amongst the company’s management team, but was deliberately kept from the public.

Around this time, ExxonMobil began fervently publishing advertorials (i.e. paid-for articles) in news and media outlets, delivering the message that the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere was increasing, but that this was probably not caused by human activity, and definitely had absolutely nothing to do with where our fuel was coming from. Advertorials like this one, published on 6 July 1989:

It’s plain as day that oil and gas companies knew the damage that they were doing, and they chose to actively deceive the public about it to embed the use of their products in everyday life and keep those profits coming.

Campaigns like #ExxonKnew are shedding light on this, and are being picked up across social media platforms.

…And they still are to this day

There’s no denying that climate change is real today, given the scientific consensus. Yet, oil and gas companies are still finding ways to use advertising to make themselves appear like they’re part of the solution rather than being the majority of the problem.

In 2020, for instance, BP released its latest set of adverts which were plastered on billboards all over the world. The primary message was of the ‘possibilities’ and ‘advancements’ in ‘clean’ energy, giving the impression that investing in renewable energy alternatives was the primary aim of their business, when the reality is that the vast majority of their work remains in fossil fuel extraction, continuing to pump greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere.

Lawyers at ClientEarth filed a complaint against BP for the misleading advertising, eventually resulting in BP having to take down the advert.

“Oil and gas companies are spending millions to convince the public of their social licence to operate and deflect from their role in rapidly heating the planet…We took issue with BP giving the impression that it’s racing to renewables, that its gas is cleaner, and that it is part of the climate solution, when the vast majority of its spend is still on fossil fuels.”

- Sophie Marjanac, ClientEarth

Unfortunately, BP aren’t the only culprit, and adverts like this one are seen by millions of people across the world every year. UK based think tank InfluenceMap found that fossil fuel companies spent over $9.6million in 2020 alone on Facebook adverts that presented oil and gas as ‘climate friendly’. This includes one advert from Shell which highlights its ‘net-zero emissions target’ and uses the hashtag #MaketheFuture.

Who creates the adverts?

Whilst it is, of course, true that advertising campaigns like those highlighted above commissioned by the oil and gas companies, it is seldom they who actually create them. This is where those supporters come into the story.

Take the BP clean energy adverts, for instance. BP commissioned advertising agency Ogilvy, communications agency Purple Strategies, and production company Picture Farm to create this campaign.

These advertising companies are playing an active role in spreading greenwashing messages on behalf of the fossil fuel industry. They too are profiting from this, with huge amounts of money changing hands for campaigns like this.

Picture Farm even use the BP campaign to promote their own work on their website to this day, despite the adverts having been proved illegal and taken down. And, at the same time, they claim one of their core values to be sustainability: ‘Picture Farm values environmentally sustainable production practices…building every production to proactive specification to minimize our ecological impact.’

Clean Creatives: shedding light on the advertising agencies supporting fossil fuels

Clean Creatives launched in 2020 to shed light on this exact issue, highlighting the advertising agencies who take payment from fossil fuel companies, as well as giving the ‘clean creatives’ who pledge not to a way to highlight their standpoint through the clean creatives badge.

Screenshot from Clean Creatives website

For founder Duncan Meisel, the pledge is particularly important because of the sheer power and wealth lying in the hands of oil and gas companies. These are organisations that can afford to funnel millions of pounds a year into advertising campaigns, whilst the non-profits and social enterprises working to tackle the climate crisis usually don’t have the funds to counter this.

‘The fossil fuel industry has spent at least $1 billion on public relations and advertising over the past 5 years…This overwhelms the spending by the clean energy industry and public interest groups. In short, PR and ad companies are distorting the public discourse around climate change by drowning out the public.’

In today’s world we’re constantly surrounded by advertising messages. Greenwashing is becoming more and more prevalent within these messages, as companies realise that consumers care about the impact and values of the brands they buy from. We need to start questioning these messages, and digging a little deeper into the motives of those doing the advertising, and it’s organisations like Clean Creatives and ClientEarth which are helping us to do just that.

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Tabitha Whiting

Tabitha Whiting

Ramblings on communication and our climate crisis🌱