Shell’s latest greenwashing ad ban marks a tipping point for big oil’s eco campaigns
The landmark ad ban could set a precedent for all fossil fuel energy companies to be branded greenwashers when advertising ‘green’ energy.
ASA bans set of Wunderman Thompson ads / ASA
The UK ad regulator has acted against Shell for misleading consumers by giving the impression that a high proportion of its business is lower-carbon energy, which is not the case.
The ruling by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) is a major warning to energy companies to disclose their fossil fuel business when advertising cleaner energy. The action group Adfree Cities is behind the complaint, and one of its campaigners Veronica Wignall said the case “marks the end of the line for fossil fuel greenwashing in the UK.”
Breakdown of the ruling
Wunderman Thompson was behind the ads seen on TV, out of home, and on YouTube. 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 TV ad 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 ad featured superimposed text: “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”.
Shell said its intention was to raise awareness and increase interest in renewable energy and claimed consumers primarily associated the brand with fossil fuels. While the ASA acknowledged consumers would “broadly” understand Shell’s fossil fuel business, they would also know these companies were being pressured to reduce emissions and customers would be seeking out companies who were doing so.
At the time of the ad campaign in 2022, Shell’s expenditure on green energy in the UK was between 1% and 1.25% of the company’s revenue; meanwhile, Shell's spending on expanding new fossil fuel production is set to increase in 2023.
Shell also used the defense that the ads were for Shell Energy, its cleaner energy offshoot, and not Shell the fossil fuel business. However, the ASA did not consider that consumers would draw a distinction between “Shell” and “Shell Energy”.
A second challenge from Adfree Cities around the claims that “in the south west 78,000 homes use 100% renewable electricity from Shell Energy”, and “in the UK, 1.4 million households use 100% renewable electricity from Shell” were cleared by the watchdog.
Why it matters
In its defense, Shell said it was “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.”
It's not the first time Shell has faced an ad rebuke. Censures over the years have included a ban of an ad with flowers being emitted from refinery chimneys in 2007, a WFF complaint in 2008 and more recently in 2020 when Shell was forced to drop claims that customers using its petrol stations can ‘drive carbon neutral’.
Adfree Cities said this ruling is a watershed moment for fossil fuel advertising and a warning to other energy firms that advertising that misrepresents progress towards cutting emissions and addressing the climate crisis will not be tolerated in the UK.
Wignall said: “The world’s biggest polluters will not be permitted to advertise that they are ‘green’ while they build new pipelines, refineries, and rigs – but this doesn’t go far enough. Shell and other fossil fuel expanders should not be permitted to advertise at all owing to their historic and ongoing role in wrecking the planet.”
This latest ad ban comes as the energy conglomerate is on the hunt for a new agency after launching a global media review to potentially replace WPP-owned EssenceMediacom. News of the review has sparked protests from climate change campaigners Extinction Rebellion outside EssenceMediacom’s central London offices, calling on the agency to stay out of the pitch.
The crackdowns on big energy advertising will mean any pitching agency must weigh up the income on offer versus potential reputation costs. Shell is believed to spend around £142m marketing annually. Its new incumbent will need to navigate complex and evolving greenwashing regulations.
Suggested newsletters for you
Despite the crackdown, Freddie Daley, a researcher at the University of Sussex, said the ASA's approach to greenwashing doesn't go far enough and that optimism springing from this ruling must be tempered. "After all, this is only a small step in the right direction to stop the harm caused by fossil fuel advertising," he adds. According to Daley, the way in which the ASA regulates advertising is inherently reactive, rather than proactive, which means the damage caused by these adverts has already occurred.
"Shell's adverts have remained in public circulation for more than a year before being banned," Daley adds. "Until there is an outright ban on advertising for fossil fuels, like the ban on advertising for tobacco, we will not be able to prevent fossil fuel companies misleading the public on climate and delaying the inevitable shifts these businesses must make to align with a low-carbon future."