A coalition of climate organisations handed out “best in greenwashing” awards to Wunderman Thompson employees today (8 June) to "congratulate" the agency after the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) ruled its 2022 Shell ad campaign was "misleading" for consumers.
The coalition, including Adfree Cities, Glimpse, Greenpeace, Fossil Free London, Brandalism and Extinction Rebellion, gathered at Wunderman Thomson's offices in Hampstead Road, London, after three ads for the fossil fuel giant were banned on Wednesday (7 June) for overstating its investment in renewable and clean energy.
The ads also failed to clarify the majority of its business is based on environmentally-damaging products such as petrol. The ruling was Wunderman Thompson's second in eight months for breaching advertising codes on environmental claims.
Talking to Campaign at the protest this morning, Adfree Cities' Veronica Wignall said: “We're here today because advertising fossil fuels is toxic and wrong. It's increasingly a source of reputational, legal and regulatory risk. We think it has to end.
“Yesterday, Wunderman Thompson was called out by the ASA for adverts that talked up all of Shell's lower carbon initiatives, while failing to mention that they're vastly still invested in fossil fuels. More than 90% of their business is still in fossil fuels. They're not winding down.”
Brandalism's Andrew Simms added: “We have a major problem in that some of the most polluting companies in the world are trying to pass themselves off as green. They're trying to create the impression that they're acting on the immediate challenge of the climate emergency. And that matters enormously.
“It's like, your house is on fire, and somebody is telling you that they're putting it out. But they're actually pouring more fuel on the flames.”
Wignall says the ASA needs to become quicker at responding to ads that breach advertising codes on environmental claims.
“Reactive regulation by the ASA is too little too late,” Wignall asserted. “The adverts for HSBC that were banned in October last year, also made by Wunderman Thompson, were in circulation for over a year. These adverts similarly have been in circulation for a year.
The coalition of climate organisations is calling for a tobacco-style ban on fossil fuel advertising. Simms believes a tobacco-style ban is “more than possible”.
“It's already happening,” he exclaimed. “There are a number of towns and major municipalities in the UK that are introducing it at that level. You're seeing moves at a European level. It's simply a matter of time.
“Our job as campaigners is to try and accelerate that process. We've got the science in one ear shouting we need rapid, unprecedented and immediate change. And yet we've got advertising whispering in the other telling people to go on as usual consuming high-carbon products and leading high-carbon lifestyles. We've got mixed messages going to the public.”
The protest took place after Shell's global media account went up for pitch, drawing ire from climate activists.
Despite their best efforts to encourage agencies to break away from high-carbon clients, all major media agencies have declined to comment or ignored Campaign's request when questioned on whether they are pitching for the media account.
“If anybody should understand corporate reputation and reputational management, it should be the advertising industry,” Simms said.
“We're at a tipping point in history when those people who were seen to take the dollar of the companies that are pushing us over a climate cliff will leave a long and very dark shadow on their reputation. There will be a huge benefit to the agencies who are first to draw a line in the sand and say no.”