There are two different Codes, and which one applies will depend on the media type. The UK Code of Broadcast Advertising (BCAP Code) applies to all advertisements on radio and television services licensed by Ofcom. The UK Code of Non-broadcast Advertising and Direct & Promotional Marketing (CAP Code) is the rule book for non-broadcast advertisements, such as websites, social media, billboards among others.
Ads on streaming platforms are also subject to the CAP Code. The Advertising Codes are divided into sections which cover different topics, from broad areas such as ‘Misleading advertising’ to sector-specific areas such as ‘Motoring’. The Codes contain important rules that apply whenever advertisers make environmental claims, or whenever their ads convey messages that could be considered harmful or socially irresponsible.
CAP's Advertising Guidance on The environment: misleading claims and social responsibility in advertising gives examples of ASA rulings on ads that breached these rules, to explain how they apply in practice.
Section 3 of both the CAP and BCAP Code deals with misleading advertising. Both these sections of the Codes state that marketing communications/advertisements must not ‘materially mislead’ or be likely to do so.
The Codes define ‘material’ information as information that consumers need to make informed decisions about a product. If this important information is omitted, exaggerated, or presented in an ambiguous or untimely way, an ad can be considered materially misleading. Where ads refer products’ environmental credentials or make claims about their impact on the climate, those claims are likely to count as material information. If those claims aren’t accurate, or if they present an incomplete, exaggerated or otherwise misleading picture of the product they are describing, they risk breaching the Advertising Codes.
The Codes also state that any claim that is likely to be regarded as objective must be substantiated and supported by evidence. Advertisers should hold this evidence before they make objective claims, rather than gathering the evidence after the fact. And this evidence should relate specifically to the products being advertised.
Though the principles on misleading advertising apply to all ads, no matter the product type, there are also dedicated sections on environmental claims. These apply the principles outlined in the rules on misleading advertising, but go into greater detail about the requirements for claims that are specifically about the environmental impacts or ‘green’ credentials of products and services.
In the CAP Code, this is Section 11, and for the BCAP Code, Section 9 is the relevant part for ‘green’ claims. Although the wording of the CAP and BCAP Code rules differs in places, they place equivalent requirements on advertisers.
The Codes require that whenever an ad makes an environmental claim, the basis of the claim must be clear. If the ad doesn’t also include a qualification to explain the basis of the claim, it could be considered materially misleading. This requirement is stated in CAP Code rule 11.1, and BCAP Code rule 9.2.
Another important requirement for ads containing environmental claims is that the meaning of all terms used in the ad must be clear to consumers. If an environmental claim uses terminology that the audience seeing the ad is unlikely to understand the meaning of, the ad could breach CAP Code rule 11.2 or BCAP Code rule 9.3.
The Code rules also apply different standards to ‘absolute’ environmental claims and ‘comparative’ environmental claims. Absolute claims are claims such as “green” or “environmentally friendly”, whereas comparative claims are claims such as “greener” or “friendlier”. A higher standard of evidence applies to absolute claims, and the default requirement for absolute claims is that they need to be backed up by robust evidence about the product’s entire life-cycle. If an absolute claim isn’t supported by this kind of evidence, it risks breached CAP Code rule 11.4, or BCAP Code rule 9.5.
If an ad uses a comparative environmental claim instead, the ad should clearly state the basis of the comparison. This means that if an ad contains a claim such as “greener”, it should make clear what exactly the product (or a specific aspect of the product) is being compared against. This is to avoid breaching CAP Code rule 11.3, or BCAP Code rule 9.4.
These sections of the Advertising Codes contain a number of other important requirements that apply whenever advertisers choose to make environmental claims, and are worth reviewing in detail.
If an ad depicts harmful or socially irresponsible behaviour, it risks breaching the Code. Advertisers should therefore avoid depicting or condoning behaviours that are environmentally harmful or irresponsible.