It’s not that easy being ‘green’ – promoting good work without misleading by omission

Our environmental work continues apace, and one issue that’s resulting in some advertisers falling foul of our rules is where an ad leaves out information about a brand’s environmental impact, giving consumers only a partial, biased view of only the positive projects that a brand is working on. A fundamental principle of our environmental rules, in CAP Code rule 11.1, is that “unqualified claims could mislead if they omit significant information.” 

While the work being described in ads is often very positive, leading to reductions in emissions and climate-positive results, ads that focus only on this, without providing more context about the wider framework of a brand’s overall environmental impact, are likely to breach this rule. 

Some of the most highly publicised of the ASA’s recent rulings have dealt with omissions like this, from high-emitting oil and gas companies who were found to exaggerate the level of their positive environmental impact, banks not being clear enough about the level of their investments in high-polluting industries, to a water company’s ad which the ASA recently ruled against because it omitted information about the negative impact of some its work.

This last ruling was published in conjunction with another ad for a water company, which the ASA considered was compliant with the rules. These two rulings highlight another vital point – the importance of having substantive evidence to back up any claims being made.

The ASA concluded that Severn Trent had successfully demonstrated that it had, in its sector, a recent history of good environmental performance, and therefore claims such as “This is Severn Trent water. Our water. That’s why we’re working towards protecting it, nature, and our future by planting a bucket load of trees” were unlikely to mislead viewers. By contrast, complaints about Anglian Water’s ad focusing on its creation of wetlands were upheld, in part because the same Environmental Performance Assessment which showed Severn Trent performing relatively well, demonstrated that Anglian had been performing below their targets.

As more brands focus on their environmental aspirations, perhaps for 2030 or 2050, and talk about the positive results that their work to reduce emissions is having, it’s important to remember that the ASA will expect ads to make clear that these claims are made in the wider context of a company’s environmental impact, and that ads that solely focus on environmentally-positive projects are likely to breach the Code if they omit material information about the brand’s wider impact. 

We’ve updated our guidance on misleading environmental claims to help advertisers and agencies make sure environmental claims are always given clear context, and that they don’t mislead by omission. As always, there’s lots of advice on the subject on our website, and you can get free and confidential advice on your non-broadcast campaigns by contacting the CAP Copy Advice team.

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