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Walking the Talk
Latest Ban on ‘High-Carbon’ Ads Shows Appetite for Clean-Energy Transition

Edinburgh’s recent ban on ads for fossil fuels and other high-carbon products exemplifies a desire to shift those ad spaces toward cleaner, more viable alternatives and ads that promote low-carbon behaviors.

UN Secretary General António Guterrescall for a global ban on fossil-fuel advertising earlier this month is just the latest signal of the turning tide when it comes to shutting down polluter greenwashing claims. Many cities and governments are now examining their role in the climate crisis in terms of media influence and intervention, together with those industries that risk being complicit in spreading disinformation if they don’t take action.

Clean Creatives — an anti-fossil-fuel campaign group for advertisers, PR professionals and their clients — is spearheading one such movement: To date 2,200 creatives and 1,057 agencies have signed its pledge to refuse future work with fossil-fuel corporations. Executive director Duncan Meisel says that Guterres’ call to action is the right path forward and that polluters should expect more restrictions on their ability to advertise in the future.

“We are facing a climate emergency that is stretching government budgets, disrupting business and harming the public. Solving this problem requires a clear-eyed understanding of who is responsible, and a deliberate move away from them in all spheres of public life,” he tells Sustainable Brands® (SB).

“Fossil-fuel companies advertise because they know it influences public opinion and behavior. Their goal is to promote the consumption of coal, oil and gas — which is their primary product and only plan for the future — and they would not be investing in marketing if they did not believe it would advance those goals. Unfortunately, that agenda is incompatible with climate action we need to avoid disaster; and this kind of pushback will only continue,” he adds.

Scotland’s capital, Edinburgh, recently became the latest UK city to ban ads for fossil fuels and other high-carbon products — including those from airlines, airports, cruise ships and personal vehicles including SUVs, and petrol- and diesel-powered cars. While the ban only applies to City of Edinburgh Council-owned sites across the city, it covers prominent public spaces such as bus stops and billboards — along with sponsored events and other city partnerships — and is deemed to be world-leading in its approach.

James Ward, campaigner at Adfree Cities, says the Council’s new policy shows that city leaders are listening to residents — the majority of whom want greater action on climate change.

“A lot of outdoor advertising appears on bus stops, and young people are more likely to use public transport; so, we hope that this policy will have an impact on those young people by taking away the pressure of seeing high-carbon ads on a daily basis,” he tells SB.

Setting out the rationale for the new ban, the City of Edinburgh Council notes in a policy document that the decision aligns with its 2030 net-zero targets and that to reach these targets “requires a shift in society’s perception of success, and the advertising industry has a key role to play in promoting low-carbon behaviors.”

Edinburgh’s crackdown follows similar moves by other UK regions that have taken steps to curb or prohibit high-carbon advertising and sponsorships. These include the cities of Liverpool and Norwich; and the county of Somerset — which has recently adopted a new policy calling for an end to advertising for fossil fuels; vehicles powered by petrol, diesel or hybrid power; and airlines, airports or flights across its highway assets.

Meanwhile in Europe, the city of Amsterdam banned ads from fossil-fuel and aviation companies in subway stations and the city center in 2021. And while few governments have imposed national bans, France passed a climate law in 2022 prohibiting advertising for energy products related to fossil fuels such as petrol, energy from the combustion of coal mining, and hydrogen-containing carbons.

How effective these bans will be in terms of changing consumer perception and behavior remains to seen; but as a steer, Ward points to Transport for London’s ban on junk-food advertising — which was estimated to have prevented around 95,000 cases of obesity, saving over £200 million for the National Health Service, between its introduction in 2019 and a study conducted in 2022.

“The value of the health benefits accrued by these policies far outweighs any short-term loss in revenue from a reduction in advertising,” Ward says, adding: “Outdoor advertising doesn’t exist in a vacuum; it’s tied into all sorts of other areas of life like public health and the environment where councils have ambitions to make improvements. As much as possible, the more councils can do to support alternatives to high-carbon lifestyles, the better.”

Mark Shayler, founder of strategy firm Ape and Good Briefs — a new creative agency that he calls an “antidote to greenwashing, greenwishing and greenhushing” — tells SB that these type of bans can help “de-normalize such products;” but he believes that ultimately, “the carrot is mightier than the stick” when it comes to nudging behavior change: “Show a world, a city and a life that’s better without these things. ‘Imagine better’ would always be my first option,” he says.

This sentiment is echoed by Whitney Dailey, EVP for Purpose at Allison — a global PR and marketing firm that has signed the Clean Creatives Pledge. She believes the same levels of energy and investment that have been ploughed into fossil-fuel advertising should now be redirected into viable alternatives.

“Even more important perhaps than calling fossil-fuel companies out, we need to talk about the flip side — the cleaner, healthier, more equitable future that can be achieved through a transition away from fossil fuels,” she tells SB. “We need to strengthen those messages and we need our world leaders, our business leaders, our celebrities and athletes to reinforce them, too.”