Nayantara Dutta
Oct 26, 2023

Why Asia suffers the most from fossil fuel advertising

Following the reveal of Asia's F-list by Clean Creatives this week, Research director Nayantara Dutta opines why even if creatives and agencies have the best of intentions, they may still end up being complicit with polluters in Asia.

Why Asia suffers the most from fossil fuel advertising

I live 12 km away from the largest dumping ground in Asia, which is in the middle of Mumbai. The average life expectancy of people who live near Deonar, the dumping site, is only 39 years old. In one of the biggest cities in the world, even those as privileged as me constantly suffer from the impacts of air pollution. It actively threatens our health and how we navigate our daily lives. In 2019, air and water pollution led to over 2.3 million premature deaths in India.

In June, when smoke from the Canada wildfires turned the sky orange in New York City, I walked down the street in Manhattan, while the whole city was on high alert, and realised the air quality was not so different from where I live. On a normal day, the air quality in Mumbai is between three to 10 times the World Health Organization’s recommended limit. AQI levels of 300 give everyday people the health impact of smoking 11 cigarettes a day. Even during the wildfires, New York still had cleaner air than Delhi in the winter.

The current state of pollution

Climate change is here, and no one knows its realities more intimately than people in Asia. In 2021, Al Jazeera reported that all of the world’s 100 most polluted cities were in Asia. We live amongst mountains of trash, much of which is sent over by Western countries. How are we supposed to clean up our countries when we are dealing with the world’s waste?

This week, Clean Creatives released the Asia F-List, the first known research project on fossil fuel advertising in Asia which identifies over 100 contracts between agencies and polluters in 2022 and 2023. We wrote this report because we saw an important opportunity to speak to the creative community and explore how Asia can invest in meaningful climate action. 

Why Asia is at risk

In the past few decades, Asia has become the fastest growing region for fossil fuel production and consumption, although its geographic features and socioeconomic conditions put many countries at risk. Even though there are significant differences between Asia’s developed and developing countries, they share an inheritance because of the land they live on, which is especially vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. 

Fossil fuels have endangered our climate, but for many Asian countries they have also been deeply entwined with development pathways and strategies for providing energy access. Perhaps as a result, there is less stigma around working on fossil fuel campaigns in Asia, as compared to the West. Many agencies and PR firms in Asia proudly display their creative work for oil and gas clients. However, these campaigns are often based on misinformation and greenwashing, which deceive the public into thinking that fossil fuel companies care about the environment, when they’re actually accelerating the climate crisis.

Fossil fuel campaigns are concealing the truth

To give creatives the tools to separate truth from fiction, we analysed fossil fuel campaigns in Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, Thailand and Vietnam.

Our research revealed two key strategies that polluters use in Asian markets: campaigns which incentivise consumers into buying more and campaigns which use purpose-washing to make people believe that fossil fuel companies are doing good. 

These campaigns are extremely deceptive but pretend to be well-intentioned. For example, Shell, Caltex (Chevron) and Denko use giveaways to make people feel like they are winning a prize, when they’re actually paying for it, since they must make a fuel purchase to participate. People feel like they are valued customers while the company pockets their profits. 

The world’s worst polluters are using PR to spin the narrative, instead of taking responsibility for the mess they have created. PTT plants trees to declare a commitment to biodiversity, even though its multiple oil spills have damaged local ecosystems. Adani’s #iCan initiative asks consumers “Can you lower your carbon footprint?” to gaslight them into believing that climate change is their personal responsibility, while Adani quietly invests in fossil fuel expansion. Fossil fuel campaigns in Asia are being used to steer people away from the truth and seed disinformation.

We need to take urgent action

Even if creatives and agencies have the best of intentions, they are complicit in this manipulation as long as they work with polluters. Oil and gas companies are not concerned with climate change and keep increasing their pollution, but communications professionals can take a stand by declining to work with them.

We need to stop fossil fuel campaigns. As climate action starts to gain momentum in Asia, creatives and companies can work together to find local solutions and lead by example. We hope that this report is a resource for the industry to step up and make a change.

Nayantara Dutta is the Research director of Clean Creatives, a global movement to help creatives who care about the climate to say no to fossil fuel clients. She has lived in India, Hong Kong, Vietnam, the U.S. and Scotland, and is currently based in Mumbai.

Campaign Asia

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