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The Green Party wants to ban high-carbon advertising in the UK

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By Ellen Ormesher | Senior Reporter

October 16, 2023 | 8 min read

Sian Berry, Green London Assembly Member and former Green Party leader currently running for re-election as Brighton Pavillion MP, explains the proposals it’s bringing forward.

EasyJet ads on TFL

The ad ban would include fossil fuels and other high-carbon industries like aviation / Outsmart

At its conference in Brighton last week, members of the UK’s Green Party unanimously backed a motion to ban ads that promote polluting goods and services.

Controls on the advertising of harmful products like junk food and tobacco are already common and, as the climate emergency worsens, the movement to restrict advertising on goods and services that are carbon intensive has been growing across the globe.

In 2021, Amsterdam, for example, became the first city in the world to ban ads from fossil fuel and aviation companies. In 2022, France became the first country in the world to ban fossil fuel ads. In other regions, ads for high-carbon industries such as automotive must carry tobacco-style health warnings, encouraging people to walk or cycle instead.

Brighton’s constituency MP, Caroline Lucas, is calling for a similar ban on ‘high carbon advertising.’ Green Party members voted for an end to all adverts that promote goods, products and services that are carbon-intensive, such as SUVs and long-haul flights. Lucas declared them “incompatible with a sustainable society or liveable future.”

Speaking to The Drum following the vote, Sian Berry, who is seeking to succeed Lucas as the next Green MP for Brighton Pavilion, believes this is the first step in reforming the UK’s current regulation on ads for high-carbon companies.

“I’d like to see fewer adverts that affect people’s daily lives and that can’t be avoided in the public sphere,” she says. When asked whether the ban could be actioned first in Brighton, she tells us: “From the point of view of trying to limit the messages people receive, we would need a national law.”

The Green Party has frequently compared a high-carbon ad ban to the banning of ads for products high in fat, sugar and salt (HFSS), otherwise known as the junk food ad ban. That’s been fiercely debated since the early 2000s after the government imposed a ban on running junk food ads around kids’ programs. Plans for a wider ban across all TV programming before the 9pm watershed have been pushed back until 2025.

Critics might argue that the problem with the Greens’ new proposed policy is much the same as that of the junk food ban. Can it establish the criteria on which brands are deemed ‘high carbon’? When Transport for London (TfL) imposed its own HFSS ad ban in 2019, for example, the parameters meant products such as jam, butter and bacon couldn’t be shown on ads across its network. Then, it was slammed as a “crude mechanism” that meant “entire sectors of relatively harmless products are likely being banned.”

The Green Party’s wider motion has not yet fully outlined what sectors or companies would be seen as ‘high carbon advertisers.’ It currently defines it as “forms of advertising that promote goods, products and services that are carbon intensive,“ saying these are “incompatible with a sustainable society.“

It adds: “High carbon advertising underpins mass carbon consumption and promotes high carbon goods, products and services, and is, therefore, a significant factor in the climate crisis.”

Rather than pinpoint companies or sectors that will face a ban, Berry, who has worked on TfL’s advertising network, cites its limitations on junk food ads as an example of where the industry has previously successfully shifted to focus less on the product and more on the behavior it’s encouraging. “It shows just how adaptive the marketing industry is.”

Berry stresses that, like the junk food ad ban, Greens do not wish to ban any of the products outright – simply their promotion and advertising. “The point is to level the playing field so it skews towards helping people find those products.”

The advertising industry itself has been resistant to government-imposed advertising bans. The Advertising Association and the IPA have consistently objected to the government’s junk food policy, calling it draconian, “misguided, unfounded and totally ineffective.”

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The Drum approached the Advertising Association and the IPA for their view on the Green Party’s proposed ban on high-carbon ads. Both declined to comment.

Jonathan Wise, co-founder of ad industry climate network Purpose Disruptors, welcomed the proposition and pointed out that the UK’s 2018 ’sugar tax’ was an event that spawned “a wave of innovation in the drinks category.”

He says: “Brands such as Coca-Cola and Red Bull took advantage of the tax to launch new low- and no-sugar varieties that have witnessed strong growth.”

On the potential of a high carbon ad ban, he says: “As the architects of desire, the advertising industry helps define what we should buy to live the good life. We need to create new social norms and desire for low-carbon lifestyles. This means that any advertising for the brands in these categories – like EasyJet, McDonald’s and Land Rover – runs directly against the society we need to help create.

“Does the advertising industry want to help or hinder our society’s transition to be more sustainable? Enlightened leaders will know that restrictions create new opportunities.”

Berry says while there will always be room for the work and creativity that comes from the advertising industry, she expresses her wish to work alongside the ASA to crack down on misleading environmental claims. “Promoting things as ’green’ when they are not shouldn’t be part of an ethical advertiser’s job.”

The ASA tells The Drum that while it does not have the power to ban ads for products that are legally available, it will ”continue to effectively regulate green claims in ads and ensure that our rules are led by the evidence.”

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