HSBC ‘sustainability’ adverts banned for missing detail on fossil fuel financing

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Britain’s biggest bank HSBC has been slammed by the UK advertising regulator today for misleading greenwash advertising.

In a world-first for a bank, a suite of ads promoting HSBC’s ‘sustainability’ initiatives have been banned by the UK ad regulator for failing to include information about HSBC’s financing of fossil fuels. 

After Adfree Cities reported HSBC’s ads to the regulator in October 2021, we’re delighted to finally see this result. It’s being covered in major papers: FT, Bloomberg, WSJ, Times, Telegraph, Guardian, Daily Mail, BBC and more.

Robbie Gillett from Adfree Cities said

“This is a significant moment in the fight to prevent banks from greenwashing their image. HSBC can no longer ply us with ads pretending they are green while continuing to bankroll climate breakdown in the background. HSBC and other banks such as Barclays and Standard Chartered must stop funding fossil fuels instead of attempting to buy public favour with deceptive marketing campaigns, before these reputational risks turn into legal ones.”

HSBC’s ‘Climate Change Doesn’t Do Borders’ TV advert from 2021 featuring Richard Ayoade. Whilst the ASA complaint only ruled on the poster version of the HSBC adverts, this TV advert contains the same lack of infomation about HSBC financing of fossil fuels.

The banned ads tout HSBC’s green financing and tree planting schemes. However, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) pointed out that this would be likely to mislead most people by giving an impression of the bank as having an overall positive impact on the environment. 

From 2016-2021, HSBC poured an eye-watering £115 billion into fossil fuel companies around the world. Its clients include oil giants with major expansion plans such as Saudi Aramco, ExxonMobil and Shell. The bank is the 13th top financier of fossil fuels globally. However, HSBC paints a very different picture in its expensive marketing campaigns. The bank paid more than £90,000 to promote this climate ad campaign on Facebook alone between October 2021 to February 2022, according to Facebook’s ad library.

The regulator further ruled that any future adverts presenting ‘green claims’ must not fail to mention the bank’s financing of fossil fuels, a ruling that will have consequences for other banks with both similar portfolios and similar ad campaigns, such as Barclays and Standard Chartered

For more detail on how HSBC’s adverts omitted its negative impact on the climate, read our fully-referenced short summary of HSBC’s fossil fuel and ecocide financing, much of which formed the basis of our complaint.

HSBC’s “Sustainability” adverts in a Glasgow bank branch, October 2021

What’s next?

> Better and more timely regulation: While Adfree Cities welcomes this ban, these adverts were initially reported to the advertising regulator 12 months ago, in October 2021. The government and the ASA must strengthen advertising rules to prevent ‘greenwashing’ effectively and in a timely way. Climate breakdown is happening now and corporate greenwashing is delaying meaningful climate action on a huge scale – the ad regulator has a duty to prevent major polluters from maintaining a public image built on a false impression of their actual activities.

> Drop the brief: Advertising agencies Grey London and Wunderman Thompson put together these greenwashing ads and others that boost HSBC’s reputation, glossing over the bank’s role in financing climate breakdown. Along with organisations like Clean Creatives and Glimpse, we’re asking advertisers to stop working with fossil fuel clients and their financiers. Get involved with Adfree Cities for opportunities to take action.

> Ask Richard Ayoad to #ditchHSBC:  Well-loved comedian Richard Ayoade partnered with HSBC in their ‘Climate change doesn’t do borders’ TV advert, as well as several other ad campaigns for the bank. Join a call for Richard to end the partnership to stop HSBC benefitting from his popularity: Tweet Richard Ayoade here and ask him to #ditchHSBC.

Above: a still from the TV version of HSBC’s sustainability adverts.
Join our social media action calling on comedian Richard Ayoade to end his partnership as brand ambassador for HSBC. Ayoade starred in the TV version of HSBC’s ‘Climate Change Doesn’t Do Borders’ advert, created by Wunderman Thompson (the TV ad was not formally included in the complaint).
HSBC’s ‘Climate Change Doesn’t Do Borders’ advert in Bristol, October 2021
Metro, October 2021

Above: HSBC paid £80-£90K to promote just these two ads on Facebook, according to the platform’s Ad Library, along with many other promoted adverts with smaller budgets.

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