Daniel Farey-Jones
Oct 20, 2022

HSBC greenwashing ad ban is example to other banks, UK ad watchdog warns

Ads promoting green projects must not mislead on banks’ overall climate impact.

HSBC greenwashing ad ban is example to other banks, UK ad watchdog warns

The UK's Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has warned all banks to be careful when including green claims in their ads after making what a spokesman called a “precedent-setting” ruling against HSBC.

The ASA banned two poster ads, created for the bank by Grey, on the basis that they gave consumers the misleading impression that HSBC was making, or intended to make, a positive overall environmental impact.

This was because they highlighted green projects supported by HSBC without acknowledging the bank is simultaneously involved in the financing of businesses that have made significant contributions to carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions and would continue to do so for many years into the future.

This counts as material information that affects consumers’ overall understanding of the ads’ message and should have been included in the ads to comply with CAP code sections 3.1, 3.3 and 11.1, according to the ASA.

The ads ran in October 2021 and attracted 45 complaints.

Commenting on the length of time between the ad running and today’s ruling, an ASA spokesman said: “All the evidence needs to be examined and reviewed, the advertiser of an ad under investigation is always given the right to reply and in some cases we may need to consult independent experts to help us assess the evidence. This means the process can sometimes take time to be completed.”

HSBC did not reply to a request for comment, but argued as part of the case that the ads highlighted two tangible and specific short-to-medium term initiatives, capable of quantifiable measurement, and would not be seen as commenting, in a broader sense, on its green credentials or environmental contribution.

It added that the financing of greenhouse gas-emitting industries was required during the transition to net zero.

Grey also did not reply to a request for comment. The agency is part of holding company WPP, which has been targeted by climate protesters over its work for oil and gas clients.

After one such protest at the Cannes Festival of Creativity by Greenpeace this June, WPP chief executive Mark Read said: “If energy companies can’t market or talk about the steps that they are taking to move to a low-carbon economy, how do consumers choose to work with the companies that do?

“At the same time, we can’t engage in greenwashing [on behalf of energy companies] – we can’t misrepresent what they do. We train our people and educate our people on marketing standards.”

Read admitted it was “a challenge” for WPP to get the balance right between helping energy companies to market their products and avoiding greenwashing.

The ASA's ruling on HSBC is the latest in a series of admonitions to brands over misleading environmental claims, including Persil in AugustInnocent Drinks in February and Oatly in January.

Campaign UK

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