'Ban ads for climate bads'

There is an increasing clamour among the public for a ban on advertising for SUVs, flights, beef and other commodities that are killing our planet.

It is bizarre and confusing being told that we face a climate emergency, and then being confronted with adverts for things we know cause climate change.

Is advertising about to have a climate 'call-out moment' - and ads for polluting products quickly become unacceptable? Yes, if the findings of a new poll on UK attitudes to advertising is anything to go by.

The advertising industry has been in the dock already for sexism, pushing gambling addiction and promoting junk food to children.

But has largely ducked responsibility for increasing demand for environmentally harmful products like SUVs, flights and red meat. 

Emergency

Awareness seems to be building in the wider population that such adverts are irresponsible and new checks and balances are needed.

In particular, and following the trajectory of the campaign to end tobacco adverts, there appears to be an understanding that ending such adverts for climate-damaging products and services is likely to be a more effective action than merely adding warnings.

Even more interesting given the ubiquity of advertising are the high levels of general dissatisfaction with the industry, and the significant number of people who would rather see no adverts at all.

In a new, nationally representative survey of UK public attitudes, more than two thirds of UK adults said that they would restrict the advertising of environmentally harmful products.

The findings reflect growing levels of public concern over the climate crisis. Seven out of ten in the same survey said that the term ‘climate emergency’ was an appropriate, or even understated, way of describing climate change.  

Curb

As well as general attitudes to advertising, people were asked which sort of environmentally harmful products in particular they believed should face curbs on their advertising.

Nearly half of UK adults favour restrictions on adverts for highly polluting cars, most of which are SUVs, and one third support restricting ads for air travel.

Both SUV-type cars and flights are, of course, major contributors to increasing global carbon emissions, and advertising has been directly linked to an increase in sales for both.

The survey was conducted by Opinium Research for the New Weather Institute and Badvertising campaign just before publication of the latest climate science from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

The IPCC report spoke about the urgent need to curb energy demand and switch to less polluting forms of transport.

It is bizarre and confusing being told that we face a climate emergency, and then being confronted with adverts for things we know cause climate change.

Striking

For the first time, the report also described greater regulation of advertising as one of the available tools to reduce carbon emissions and improve social wellbeing.

By implication, it highlighted that beyond rising awareness of greenwash which the public and regulators are becoming increasingly alert to, lies a bigger problem: adverts directly promoting environmentally harmful products are everywhere.

Once asked, British people seem to already be unhappy about this. Not unreasonably, because promoting fossil fuel companies, SUVs and airlines in a climate emergency is like advertising cigarettes in a hospital. 

Not only do nearly half of the representative sample of the population want to see less advertising overall, a large majority of people want to see ads for polluting products restricted or ended altogether.

Almost half of UK adults would like to see and hear fewer adverts in their day to day lives. That number includes a striking one in five UK adults who, given the choice, would prefer to see no adverts at all. Only 13 were content with the amount of advertising they are currently exposed to.

Planetary

When asked about how they would change their purchasing of cars, flights and beef if they were advertised with a warning on their harmful environmental impacts, about a fifth of UK adults said they would be less likely to buy those.

But merely putting warnings on adverts appears less effective than simply removing adverts for harmful products, with around half of respondents saying that warnings alone would not alter their choices. This echoes the debate that led ultimately to the ending of tobacco advertising.

In terms of what type of restrictions should be introduced on harmful products and services, significant numbers favoured complete removal of adverts.

Three in ten of those wishing to see advertising restrictions for oil, gas and coal companies believe that those types of adverts should be banned altogether, while a quarter would ban adverts for the most polluting cars, and about a fifth would ban adverts for air travel, petrol/diesel fuelled cars or red meat.

"It is bizarre and confusing being told that we face a climate emergency, and then being confronted with adverts for things we know cause climate change, such as flights to far flung places, large cars and beef,” said Veronica Wignall of the Badvertising campaign.

“It’s clear there would be public support for action to end adverts for harmful, carbon intensive products, just as there was for banning tobacco ads. Now we need politicians to act in the interests of public and planetary health."

This Author

Andrew Simms is co-director of the New Weather Institute, coordinator of the Rapid Transition Alliance, author of several books on new and green economics and co-author of the original Green New Deal. He is on twitter at @AndrewSimms_uk.

The survey, Attitudes to Advertising, was conducted online by Opinium Research among a sample of 2,000 UK adults, weighted to be nationally representative. Polling was undertaken from the 29th of March to the 1st of April 2022. More information about the Badvertising campaign which aims to stop advertising fueling the climate emergency can be found here: www.badverts.org

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