Summary of Council decision:
Two issues were investigated, one of which was Upheld and one was Not upheld.
A poster, a TV ad, and a YouTube ad for Shell:
a. The poster, seen in Bristol on 20 June 2022, featured large text that stated, “BRISTOL is READY for Cleaner Energy” superimposed over a cityscape shot of Bristol. The Shell logo (a red and yellow coloured shell) appeared in the top right-hand corner of the poster. Further text at the bottom of the poster stated, “In the South West 78,000 homes use 100% renewable electricity from Shell Energy” above smaller text that stated, “Shell Energy’s renewable electricity is supplied by the National Grid and certified by Renewable Energy Guarantees of Origin, matching electricity bought with the equivalent amount from 100% renewable sources”.
b. The TV ad, seen on 14 June 2022, opened with a man stating, “In the UK, 1.4 million households use 100% renewable electricity from Shell” as he helped a young child to cycle down the street. The scene that followed depicted two offshore engineers working on-site at a beach. The one facing the camera stated “Shell experts are working on a wind project that could power six million homes” as animated design plans for wind turbines popped up on the horizon. The ad then depicted an electric car driving into a rural town before its driver stated, “Nearly one in five new cars now plug in” as he plugged his car into a charging point. A woman out walking her dog then stated, “These chargers are popping up on our streets” before a man fitting an EV charging point added, “Shell aims to fit 50,000 chargers nationwide by 2025”. An employee at a Shell petrol and electric vehicle charging station then stated, “And with more electric car charge points coming to Shell forecourts near you, the UK is ready for Cleaner energy.” Throughout the ad, large individual letters appeared in the background of successive scenes to spell the word “READY”. The video ended with large on-screen text “The UK is READY for Cleaner Energy” followed by the Shell logo and the hashtag “#PoweringProgress”.
Superimposed text that appeared on-screen during the ad’s opening shots stated “Shell Energy’s renewable electricity is supplied by the National Grid and certified by Renewable Energy Guarantees of Origin, matching electricity bought with the equivalent amount from 100% renewable sources”.
c. The YouTube video, posted on Shell’s YouTube channel on 9 June 2022, was titled “The UK is READY For Cleaner Energy” and included text in its caption that stated, “From electric vehicle charging to renewable electricity for your home, Shell is giving customers more low-carbon choices and helping drive the UK’s energy transition. The UK is ready for cleaner energy. Learn more: https://go.shell.com/399dfw2. #PoweringProgress”. The video was identical to ad (b).
Adfree Cities, who understood that Shell’s business activities included substantial, ongoing and expanding fossil fuel production, challenged whether:
1. the ads were misleading, because they omitted significant information about the overall environmental impact of Shell’s business activities in 2022; and
2. the claim “In the South West 78,000 homes use 100% renewable electricity from Shell Energy” in ad (a) and the claim “In the UK, 1.4 million households use 100% renewable electricity from Shell” in ads (b) and (c) were misleading and could be substantiated.
1. Shell UK Ltd stated that their intent with the ads was to raise consumer awareness of, and increase demand for, the range of lower emissions energy products and services they offered, the availability of which was increasing through continued investment. They believed that the ads accurately represented those products and services and did not omit material information about their more environmentally detrimental energy products, such as petrol. Consumers would already be well-informed regarding that aspect of their operations and, in fact, would primarily associate their brand with the sale of petrol. Recent market research conducted by an independent third-party company supported that 83% of consumers did so, and also suggested that a much smaller proportion were familiar with Shell’s lower-carbon energy products and services, including renewable electricity and electric vehicle (EV) charging. Shell hoped to bridge that gap in consumers’ knowledge by providing clear and accurate information about their newer products. Achieving that would be an essential step towards realising the business’s overarching aim of helping customers transition towards lower-emissions energy sources. Particularly because of their finding that petrol sales remained the most visible part of their brand to consumers, they believed that consumers were very unlikely to assume that the ads’ content covered the full range of Shell’s business activities. In line with that, they thought there was a low risk of the ads delivering the misleading impression that they were representative of the total environmental impact associated with Shell’s operations. Because the ads’ purpose was to promote low-carbon energy, they believed that any mention of high-carbon Shell products would have been counterproductive. Information about those Shell products would have only served to highlight their existence and availability, and thereby dilute the impact of the ads’ positive environmental message. In addition, it would be disproportionate and unworkable for regulators to require businesses with diverse product portfolios to ensure that ads, the primary purpose of which was usually to promote a specific range of products, always provided a representative overview of the advertiser’s business as a whole.
Shell explained that, through use of the hashtag “#PoweringProgress”, ads (b) and (c) called attention to Shell’s Powering Progress strategy, which was central to their objective of playing a leading role in helping society meet the challenges of climate change. As part of that strategy, Shell’s commitment in relation to their own operations was to become a net-zero energy business by 2050. In addition, they aimed to expand on the 13,000 EV charging points they provided in 2022 by increasing that number to 100,000 by 2030. They emphasised that the achievement of such aims would be heavily contingent on improving consumers’ awareness of their less environmentally detrimental energy products.
Shell neither believed that the ads misrepresented the overall environmental impact of their business activities, nor that the ads omitted significant information about that impact. They highlighted that ad (a) gave specific information about the number of Shell Energy customers in Bristol who received renewable electricity. On that basis, they believed consumers were unlikely to view it as relevant to the total environmental impact associated with the full range of Shell’s business activities. They stated that ad (a) was instead likely to deliver the narrower impression that the carbon dioxide and greenhouse gas emissions associated with the renewable energy Shell provided to 78,000 homes in Bristol were lower than the emissions associated with the average UK fuel mix (i.e., a mix which incorporated fossil fuels). They also stated that consumers would likely understand that the ad only went so far as to position Shell’s renewable electricity sales as part of a strategy to aid customers’ transition away from higher-emissions products.
Shell also believed that consumers were unlikely to regard the selection of environmentally motivated initiatives referred to and championed in ads (b) and (c) as a representative sample of the full range of Shell’s business activities. Not only would consumers have recognised that those ads did not mention Shell’s high-carbon products such as petrol, but they were also unlikely to regard the set of initiatives depicted as having a wide enough scope to comprise anything resembling a representative cross-section of Shell’s business model. In particular, they would note that the ads’ content was solely focused on the delivery of electricity to UK consumers, and understand that Shell’s activities in that regard constituted a relatively minor part of their overall business. In line with that, they believed consumers were unlikely to infer that the ad intended to send any message whatsoever regarding the overall environmental impact or balance of Shell’s operations. Instead, they stated that consumers would interpret the ads as merely emphasising that Shell Energy supplied renewable electricity to UK homes, that Shell was involved in the development of offshore windfarms, and that, in line with their aim to increase potential EV purchasers’ confidence in the availability of chargers, Shell was in the process of rapidly expanding its existing EV charging infrastructure. Consumers would understand that such activities were consistent with Shell’s overarching environmental aims.
Shell stated that the claim “BRISTOL IS READY FOR CLEANER ENERGY” in ad (a), as well as the similar claim “THE UK IS READY FOR CLEANER ENERGY” in ads (b) and (c), would be recognised as a forward looking statement regarding the potential of certain Shell products to provide consumers with energy that contributed lower greenhouse gas emissions than energy from non-renewable sources. They emphasised their view that neither the claims themselves, nor the ads as a whole, featured anything to imply Shell exclusively or predominantly supplied renewable or low emissions energy. Instead, the ads merely highlighted that Shell already supplied lower-carbon energy products to some UK consumers.
Clearcast, responding in relation to the TV ad (b) only, believed that the ad did not misrepresent the overall environmental impact of Shell’s operations by stating or implying that impact was not negative. That was because ad (b) made clear that it did not seek to provide a holistic view of Shell’s environmental impact in 2022. Instead, the ad gave an overview of environmentally motivated initiatives running in areas of Shell’s business that were specifically concerned with the generation and supply of low-carbon electricity, while inviting consumers to transition towards less environmentally detrimental energy sources. They understood the tagline “The UK is ready for cleaner energy” as referring to a society-wide appetite for less environmentally detrimental energy products, and further stated that it did not emphasise or explicitly relate to Shell’s overall impact, nor even to any environmental benefits of the initiatives featured in ad (b). In addition, the claim “Nearly one in five new cars now plug in” drew focus to the important role that individual consumers’ behavioural changes would play in the fight against climate change. On that basis, they believed the claim suggested there was a limit to what Shell could achieve without consumers’ co-operation. They supported Shell’s view that consumers’ awareness of Shell’s petrol sales would mitigate any risk of ad (b) delivering the misleading impression that it was representative of the overall environmental impact of Shell’s business activities. In particular, ad (b)’s reference to, and visuals depicting, a Shell “forecourt” would specifically bring the company’s fossil-fuel based energy products to mind.
2. Shell said that the claim in ad (a) and the similar claims in ads (b) and (c) were substantiated by customer data they provided. They also believed that the qualifying text in each ad, “Shell Energy’s renewable electricity is supplied by the National Grid and certified by Renewable Energy Guarantees of Origin, matching electricity bought with the equivalent amount from 100% renewable sources” was prominent enough to make the intermediacy of the National Grid clear. On that basis, the ads did not suggest that Shell’s renewable energy was supplied to customers directly.
Shell believed that the claim in ad (a), “In the South West 78,000 homes use 100% renewable electricity from Shell Energy”, gave the impression that 78,000 homes in the South West of England purchased 100% renewable electricity from Shell Energy. The qualifying text made the intermediacy of the National Grid clear, meaning the ad gave the overall impression that, while electricity was supplied by the National Grid, the energy consumed by the claimed number of homes was accounted for by an equivalent amount of exclusively renewable energy that Shell Energy purchased.
Shell said that the claim in ads (b) and (c), “In the UK, 1.4 million households use 100% renewable electricity from Shell” gave the impression that 1.4 million homes across the UK were subscribed to Shell’s 100% renewable energy tariff. Because the qualifying text made the intermediacy of the National Grid clear, viewers would not have the misleading impression that Shell Energy supplied energy directly to those customers.
The customer data indicated that, in April 2022, in the South West of England 78,507 households were subscribed to Shell Energy’s 100% renewable electricity tariff. It also indicated that 1,403,357 households across the UK were subscribed to the same tariff. Every unit of the electricity provided to those customers was certified as renewable by the electricity and gas regulator Ofgem’s Renewable Energy Guarantees of Origin (REGOs).
In relation to the TV ad (b) only, Clearcast supported Shell’s response on this point.
The ASA acknowledged that consumers were likely to understand that energy products derived from fossil fuels were environmentally detrimental. We further acknowledged that many consumers would closely associate Shell with petrol sales, and more broadly understand that the company was involved in oil and gas investment and extraction. However, they would also have an awareness that many companies in carbon-intensive industries, including the oil and gas sector, aimed to dramatically reduce their emissions in response to the climate crisis. We considered that consumers were increasingly concerned about the environmental impact of activities related to higher-carbon products and services, and would be interested in seeking out businesses, including oil and gas companies, that were making meaningful progress towards transitioning away from higher-carbon products and services. However, they were unlikely to be aware of the details of this in relation to specific companies, and ads were therefore likely to mislead consumers if they misrepresented the contribution that lower-carbon initiatives played, or would play in the near future, as part of the overall balance of a company's activities. We assessed the ads on that basis.Ad (a) featured the claim “BRISTOL is READY for Cleaner Energy” in large text, which was accompanied by text at the bottom of the ad, that read “In the South-West 78,000 homes use 100% renewable electricity from Shell Energy”. The Shell logo appeared in the top right-hand corner of the poster. We acknowledged that the claims in the ad referred specifically to “Shell Energy”, as opposed to “Shell”, and referred to a single area of Shell’s business activities, namely those related to its role as a domestic electricity provider in the South-West of England. However, we did not consider that consumers would draw a distinction between “Shell” and “Shell Energy”, particularly because Shell was a brand well known for its energy products in a more general sense. We considered that the use of the Shell logo, the ad’s focus on the claim “BRISTOL is READY for Cleaner Energy” (emphasis on “READY”) and the other claim focusing on the number of existing customers meant that consumers would interpret the ad as making a broader claim about Shell as a whole providing cleaner energy, and featuring one illustrative example of Shell’s environmental credentials rather than as a narrow claim about one specific product offering. We considered the overall impression of the ad was that low-carbon energy products comprised a significant proportion of the energy products Shell invested in and sold in the UK in 2022, or were likely to do so in the near future.
Ads (b) and (c) depicted some of Shell’s business activities in 2022 and focused on more environmentally friendly energy products. The ads included the claims: “In the UK, 1.4 million households use 100% renewable electricity from Shell”; “Shell experts are working on a wind project that could power six million homes”; and “Shell aims to fit 50,000 [electric vehicle] chargers nationwide by 2025”. The claims “The UK is READY for cleaner energy” and hashtag “#PoweringProgress” appeared on-screen in the closing shots of the ads, together with the Shell logo and “Shell International”.
We considered that, in the absence of qualifying information, the cumulative effect of the claims relating to applications or sources of lower-carbon energy that spanned distinct and diverse areas of Shell’s operations, together with the claim “The UK is READY for Cleaner Energy”, which was immediately followed by the Shell logo, was to give the impression that low-carbon energy products comprised a significant proportion of the energy products Shell invested in and sold in the UK in 2022, or were likely to do so in the near future. In addition, the YouTube ad (c) included the caption “From electric vehicle charging to renewable electricity for your home, Shell is giving customers more low-carbon choices and helping drive the UK’s energy transition ...”. We considered the caption reinforced that impression.
We acknowledged Shell’s comment that, rather than being an explicit claim about Shell, the claim “The UK is READY for cleaner energy” in ads (b) and (c) was intended as a forward-looking statement about the UK-wide demand for less environmentally detrimental energy sources. However, in the context of the claim’s appearance in an ad for Shell, a well-known provider of energy products, we considered that consumers were likely to interpret the claim as being, in part, a claim about Shell’s own products and capacity to deliver low-carbon energy. We also considered that the emphasis the ads placed on “READY”, as well as the fact that the only timeframe mentioned by the ads was short-term, implied that lower-carbon energy products, like those shown in the ads, already comprised a significant proportion of the energy products Shell invested in and sold in the UK, or were likely to do so in the near future.
We acknowledged that “#PoweringProgress” in ad (c) referred to the name of Shell’s “Powering Progress” strategy through which the business aimed to achieve its target of reaching net-zero emissions by 2050. However, we considered that consumers were unlikely to recognise it as such. Instead, we considered that the claim reinforced the impression given by the ad’s preceding scenes that, not only was there immediate UK-wide demand for energy products that were less environmentally detrimental than those derived from fossil fuels, but that Shell’s business activities in 2022 were such that the company was already well-placed to meet that demand by providing “cleaner energy”, thereby “powering progress”.
We acknowledged that Shell said they were taking steps towards net zero and promoting sustainable energy. However, according to Shell’s 2021 Sustainability Report, Shell’s operations gave rise to greenhouse gas emissions in 2021 that were estimated as equivalent to 1375 million tonnes of carbon dioxide. While that estimate did not capture Shell’s absolute emissions in 2021, given that it included deductions linked to carbon offsets and did not cover certain commercial contracts, it nonetheless represented a large contribution to greenhouse gas emissions. We understood that large-scale oil and gas investment and extraction comprised the vast majority of the company’s business model in 2022 and would continue to do so in the near future. We therefore considered that, because ads (a), (b) and (c) gave the overall impression that a significant proportion of Shell’s business comprised lower-carbon energy products, further information about the proportion of Shell’s overall business model that comprised lower-carbon energy products was material information that should have been included. Because the ads did not include such information, we concluded that they omitted material information and were likely to mislead.
On this point, ads (a) and (c) breached CAP Code (Edition 12) rules 3.1 and 3.3 (Misleading advertising) and 11.1 (Environmental claims) and ad (b) breached BCAP Code rules 3.1 and 3.2 (Misleading advertising) and 9.2 (Environmental claims).
2. Not upheld
The ASA noted that, since 2021, the UK Government had been conducting a review of ‘green’ electricity tariffs. That review was partly concerned with the question of whether Renewable Energy Guarantees of Origin (REGOs) were adequate to ensure transparency regarding the provenance of the electricity associated with particular tariffs. Nevertheless, we understood that, at the time the ad appeared, the regulatory regime in the UK continued to allow domestic electricity providers to account for renewable energy supplied to consumers by holding REGOs, including by purchasing them via a third-party marketplace.
We understood the complainant was concerned that the claim “In the South West 78,000 homes use 100% renewable electricity from Shell Energy” in ad (a), and the claim “In the UK, 1.4 million households use 100% renewable electricity from Shell” in ads (b) and (c), misrepresented the number of homes in each region that purchased 100% renewable electricity from Shell Energy, and implied that Shell Energy directly supplied energy to the claimed number of homes in each region.
We considered that consumers would understand the claims to mean that the number of homes specified in each ad used electricity supplied under a domestic energy tariff by Shell, and that the electricity supplied was classed as 100% renewable. We understood that most electricity generated from renewable sources was distributed through the National Grid. The amount of electricity taken from the National Grid by consumers of renewable electricity products was equal to the amount of electricity fed into the National Grid from renewable sources.
The customer data that Shell had provided substantiated that the number of homes subscribed to their 100% renewable energy tariff in each region exceeded the claimed figure. Ofgem’s REGO certified that energy purchased via Shell’s 100% renewable electricity tariff was exclusively derived from renewable sources. For those reasons, we considered that the ads were not likely to mislead in relation to the number of households that purchased 100% renewable electricity from Shell.
Regarding how the electricity was supplied, each ad referred to the intermediacy of the National Grid with text that stated, “Shell Energy’s renewable electricity is supplied by the National Grid and certified by Renewable Energy Guarantees of Origin, matching electricity bought with the equivalent amount from 100% renewable sources”. In ads (b) and (c), that text featured on-screen for the entire duration of the ads’ opening shots. In ad (a), the text was included directly underneath the main claim. Because of the inclusion of this information, we did not consider that the ads implied that the electricity generated from renewable sources was delivered directly and only to Shell’s green energy tariff customers.
Because Shell had substantiated the claimed figures, and the ads made clear that the electricity was supplied via the National Grid rather than directly, we concluded that the ads were not likely to mislead.
On this point we investigated ads (a) and (c) under CAP Code rules 3.1, 3.3 and 3.7 (Misleading advertising) and 11.1 (Environmental claims), but did not find them in breach. We also investigated ad (b) under BCAP Code rules 3.1, 3.2 and 3.9 (Misleading advertising) and 9.2 (Environmental claims), but did not find it in breach.
Ads (a), (b) and (c) must not appear again in the form complained of. We told Shell UK Ltd to ensure that their future ads featuring environmental claims did not mislead by exaggerating or, omitting material information about, the proportion of their business activities that were comprised of lower carbon activities.