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ASA Adjudication on Shell Europe Oil Products Ltd

Shell Europe Oil Products Ltd

Shell Centre
London
SE1 7NA

Date:

7 November 2007

Media:

National press

Sector:

Industrial and engineering

Number of complaints:

4

Agency:

J Walter Thompson

Complaint Ref:

33778

Ad

A national press ad, for Shell, was headlined "DON'T THROW ANYTHING AWAY THERE IS NO AWAY" and showed the outline of an oil refinery, which had chimneys producing flowers. Text stated "IF ONLY WE HAD A MAGIC BIN THAT WE COULD THROW STUFF IN AND MAKE IT DISAPPEAR FOREVER. WHAT WE CAN DO IS FIND CREATIVE WAYS TO RECYCLE. WE USE OUR WASTE CO2 TO GROW FLOWERS, AND OUR WASTE SULPHUR TO MAKE SUPER-STRONG CONCRETE. REAL ENERGY SOLUTIONS FOR THE REAL WORLD".

Issue

The complainants, including Friends of the Earth, challenged whether the ad was misleading, because:

1. the image of refinery chimneys emitting flowers misrepresented the environmental impact of Shell's refineries; and

2. the claim "We use our waste CO2 to grow flowers" implied that Shell used all of its waste CO2 to grow flowers, whereas they believed only 0.325% of their emissions were used to grow flowers.

3. Friends of the Earth also challenged whether the claim "We use ... our waste sulphur to make super-strong concrete" misleadingly implied all Shell's waste sulphur was used to make concrete.

CAP Code (Edition 11)

Response

Shell said the ad was part of their 'Throw Away' campaign, which aimed to promote the positive steps they were taking to find ways to recycle waste and to show that solutions were possible and, in some areas, had already been found. They said the campaign was intended to demonstrate to their current and potential business partners how they addressed some key issues around the energy challenges of the present and future.  They said the ad was targeted at business decision-makers and well-educated readers who, they believed, were open to a high-level debate and had an interest in innovative ways to address the energy challenge.  They believed those readers were capable of understanding the language used in the ad.  They said the ad was the first phase of the campaign and did not intend to use the ad again in future.

1. Shell said the ad depicted a conceptual world in pictures and words.  They said the imaginary concept was reinforced by the use of drawings instead of photographs and the fantasy style of the artwork used, including the typeface of the headline.  They said the ad did not look like a conventional corporate ad for Shell and it was unlikely to be interpreted as a literal claim about the environmental impact of a present-day refinery.  They highlighted clause 3.4 of the Code, which stated "Obvious untruths or exaggerations that are unlikely to mislead ... are all allowed provided they do not affect the accuracy or perception of the marketing communication in a material way".  

Shell said the imagery represented the world they wished existed, which was made clear by the text "If only we had a magic bin that we could throw stuff in and make it disappear forever".   They said that was then contrasted with reality by the text "What we can do is find creative ways to recycle", which reinforced the fact that the fantasy world did not exist and that ways to tackle the issue of waste needed to be found.

Shell said the image of flowers coming out of the refinery chimneys was not intended to depict reality.  They said it was clear from the style of the drawing and the context of the ad as a whole that it was a thought-provoking image designed to stimulate interest and debate in the issues around waste and energy supply.  They believed a reasonable person would not be misled into believing that refineries had a positive impact on the environment from the fanciful image.

2. Shell said they supplied waste CO2 to local greenhouse growers; the growers had a total area of around 3,200 acres.  They said they supplied 170,000 tonnes of CO2 in 2005 and they estimated they would supply around 320,000 tonnes of CO2 in 2007.  They pointed out that CO2 would otherwise have been emitted into the atmosphere and that it was equivalent to the annual CO2 emissions from around 102,894 vehicles.

Shell said that before they supplied CO2 to greenhouse growers, those growers had burned natural gas to produce CO2 to improve growing conditions for the plants; on average the amount of gas burned was 95,000,000 m3 per annum.  By supplying the CO2, there was no longer a need to burn natural gas, which would have resulted in a further 16,984 tonnes of CO2 being emitted per annum.  They said it was therefore clear that the emission reductions and energy savings were considerable.  They said in the context of the ad, they believed the claim "We use our waste CO2 to grow flowers" was merely an example of one of the practical steps they were taking to provide energy solutions, whilst tackling the important issue of waste management and recycling.  

Shell said the attempt to quantify the significance of the project by comparing its benefits to their global business could serve no recognisable benefit.  They pointed out that Shell was the world's third largest company with operations in 130 countries.  They considered that presenting the CO2 reduction in global percentage terms trivialised the significance of the project, which delivered significant waste reduction benefits.  They said the 0.325% figure quoted by Friends of the Earth compared the CO2 emission reduction in the greenhouse project in 2005 against the Shell Group's worldwide emissions for that year.  They said they expected CO2 use in that project to have doubled in 2007.  However, they believed it was inappropriate to compare the emissions reductions of a single local initiative against their global operations, because to do so belittled the significant reduction in absolute terms contributed by those initiatives.  Furthermore, they said it would not be statistically meaningful to extrapolate the figures to a global level, because the initiative could not be replicated globally; greenhouse growing was not a widely used practice to grow flowers.

Shell believed there was no express or implied reference to them using all their waste CO2 to grow flowers.  They said the ad could be interpreted in that way only if the reference to "our waste" was taken to mean "all our waste".  They believed that interpretation would not be made by a reasonable reader, because it would ignore the context created by the look and feel of the ad and it relied on the insertion of additional words.

3. Shell said for decades they had found ways to bring waste sulphur, produced during the refining process, to the commercial market for further development and processing.  They said, however, that because of increasingly stringent air quality and fuel quality legislation, oversupplies to the sulphur market were anticipated.  In that context, they had proactively and voluntarily developed a new method to use waste sulphur, by using it as a binder in concrete production instead of cement. They said the potential environmental benefits of that were twofold: firstly it prevented the release of the sulphur into the atmosphere as sulphur dioxide, secondly the addition of the sulphur to concrete increased the concrete's durability.  They said eight tonnes of sulphur-strengthened concrete had, to date, been produced but they expected production to grow considerably in the next ten years.  They said that to consider the figures for this start-up initiative as a percentage of worldwide sulphur production at this stage would significantly downplay its potential; the potential savings from the initiative were widely acknowledged to be huge, because of the vast demand for concrete globally.

Shell said the reference to super-strong concrete was just one example of Shell finding creative solutions for the use of waste sulphur.  They said their arguments made against point two of the complaint were also relevant here; they had not claimed that all their waste sulphur was used to make super-strong concrete.   They believed a reasonable reader would not interpret the ad in that way given the context of the whole ad.  

Assessment

1. Not upheld

The ASA noted the image was conceptual and fanciful and we considered that most readers were unlikely to interpret it as a depiction of reality.  We considered that readers were likely to understand the image was intended to highlight one of Shell's new waste initiatives and were unlikely to infer that their oil refineries had a positive environmental impact.  We concluded that the image was unlikely to mislead.

On this point, we investigated the ad under CAP Code clauses 7.1 (Truthfulness) and 49.1 (Environmental claims) but did not find it in breach.

2. Upheld

We noted Shell used some of its waste CO2 to grow flowers and that that had environmental benefits.  We also noted they had intended the ad merely to highlight some of the positive steps they were taking to address the problem of waste management.  However, we considered that, in the absence of qualification, most readers were likely to interpret the claim "We use our waste CO2 to grow flowers", especially in the context of the image and the headline claim "Don't throw anything away there is no away", to mean that Shell used all, or at least the majority, of their waste CO2 to grow flowers, whereas the actual amount was a very small proportion, when compared to the global activities of Shell.  We concluded that the claim was likely to mislead.

On this point, the ad breached CAP Code clauses 7.1 (Truthfulness) and 49.1 (Environmental claims).

3. Upheld

We noted Shell's use of waste sulphur to make "super-strong" concrete was a new initiative and as such the amount of waste sulphur used in the initiative to date was only a small proportion, when compared to the global activities of Shell.  We considered that, without qualification, and when read in conjunction with the headline claim, readers were likely to interpret the claim "We use ... our waste sulphur to make super-strong concrete" to mean that Shell used all, or at least the majority, of their waste sulphur to make super-strong concrete.  We concluded that the claim was likely to mislead.

On this point, the ad breached CAP Code clauses 7.1 (Truthfulness) and 49.1 (Environmental claims).

Action

We noted the ad was no longer appearing and welcomed Shells assurance that they would not use it in future.

Adjudication of the ASA Council (Non-broadcast)

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