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Greenwashing Shell adverts banned by watchdog

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Following a complaint by Adfree Cities, adverts for fossil fuel giant Shell have been officially banned by the UK’s advertising regulator for making misleading green claims. The ads were made by agency Wunderman Thompson.

Read about the ban on Shell’s greenwash ads in the media, including FTEvening StandardSky, QuartzGuardianTelegraphTimes

  • The ads promoted Shell’s renewable energy activities but failed to mention their vastly greater, and expanding, fossil fuel operations
  • The ruling sets a precedent to crack down on greenwash in energy companies’ advertising
  • We need tobacco-style legislation to end fossil fuel advertising for good

What the ruling says

The adverts included billboard, TV and online adverts featuring the slogan “the UK is READY for cleaner energy.” The ads promoted Shell’s greener energy activities, like wind power and electric vehicle charge points, whilst failing to include any mention of its vast fossil fuel operations. The ads also used the hashtag #PoweringProgress, giving the impression that Shell is helping to drive the transition to cleaner energy and tackle climate breakdown.

Our complaint held that this was misleading, given that Shell’s business at the time of the ads was over 95% reliant on fossil fuels, and the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) agreed.

The ASA’s ruling noted Shell’s large contribution to climate-harming greenhouse gases, and that large-scale oil and gas investment and extraction comprised the vast majority of Shell’s business model at the time of the ad campaign in 2022, and would continue to do so in the near future.

The watchdog banned the adverts and warned Shell that in future, its ads should not exaggerate the proportion that low carbon energy contributes to Shell’s business. This ruling will set a precedent for other energy companies, meaning that the likes of Shell, BP and ExxonMobil will not be able to use this common, and extremely damaging, greenwashing tactic in their marketing in future.

At the time the ‘cleaner energy’ ads ran in 2022, Shell’s expenditure on green energy in the UK was between just 1% and 1.25% of the company’s revenue, which in 2021 came in at £200bn. Meanwhile, Shell’s spending on expanding new fossil fuel production is set to increase in 2023 after reporting record-breaking profits of $39.9bn (£32.2bn) in 2022.

A large digital billboard shows an ad for Shell. It reads "Bristol is ready for clean energy"
A bus stop ad shows an ad for Shell.

What we say

Veronica Wignall, co-director of Adfree Cities, who led the complaint, said: “Today’s official ban on Shell’s adverts marks the end of the line for fossil fuel greenwashing in the UK. The world’s biggest polluters will not be permitted to advertise that they are ‘green’ while they build new pipelines, refineries and rigs – but this doesn’t go far enough. Shell and other fossil fuel expanders should not be permitted to advertise at all, given their historic and ongoing role in wrecking the planet. 

“UK-wide protests are exposing the absurdity of expanding oil and gas extraction and rampant profiteering in the face of worsening climate impacts. We need robust legislation to stop fossil fuel advertising – but we also need UK advertising agencies to stop enabling clients like Shell that are not only on the wrong side of history, but a source of growing regulatory and reputational risk.”

Emilie Tricarico from the Badvertising campaign said: In the face of mounting evidence and loudening calls for action, Shell is expanding its oil and gas operations. This is the complete opposite of powering an energy transition, as its adverts claim. For years, Shell has faced accusations of greenwashing and misleading the public over its business operations’ impact on the natural world. Yet regulation has lagged hopelessly behind, reacting to individual adverts rather than proactively shaping a regulatory framework. We must treat fossil fuel firms in the same way we treated tobacco firms and introduce outright bans on their advertisements due to the damage their activities cause the environment, public health, and our collective future.” 

This ruling sends a powerful message to energy companies that their greenwash ads will no longer be tolerated in the UK. It comes at a time of increasing legal and social pressure on Shell from around the world, including a crackdown on its greenwashing. In the Netherlands, Shell’s “CO2 neutral” and “CO2 compensation” adverts were banned by the Dutch advertising regulator, and Shell’s adverts are also currently under investigation in Australia.

Limits to regulation

Although this ruling is welcome, it is almost a full year since our initial complaint. So although the misleading ads are now banned, the damage has already been done. This case highlights the limitations of regulation, which also cannot fine offending corporations, and the need for legislation to ban fossil fuel ads at source in the same way tobacco ads were banned once the harm caused by cigarettes was recognised.

A United Nations High-Level Expert Group and the UK’s House of Lords, have called for government intervention and the World Health Organisation director of public health and climate, Maria Neira, has publicly called for tobacco-style legislation to end fossil fuel advertising.

What you can do

Write to your MP: We need to stop greenwash ads at their source. This can be done through new laws that ban ads for highly polluting products and services, just like we have laws banning ads for tobacco.

You can help by writing to your MP and asking that they raise this issue in Parliament and back calls for tobacco-style legislation on high-carbon adverts.

Use our template letter to write to your MP today and ask that they STOP FOSSIL FUEL ADVERTISING.

Tell Wunderman Thompson that making adverts that promote fossil fuel companies is toxic and wrong: We’re holding advertising companies to account, along with an upswell of creative professionals who do not want to create marketing campaigns for climate-wrecking clients like Shell.

Join our demonstration outside the agency that made these adverts, Wunderman Thompson north-east London on June 8th from 8.15-10am to tell WT that making adverts that promote and greenwash fossil fuel companies is toxic and wrong.

If you can’t make it, use this easy tool to send Wunderman Thompson a tweet demanding they stop working for Shell, HSBC and other fossil fuel clients.

London, UK. 23 May 2023. Climate campaigners from Fossil Free London protest the 2023 Shell AGM at London’s Excel Centre with 100 people disrupting the event inside and a ‘Welcome to Hell’ display outside, calling on the board and shareholders to shut down Shell due to their continued expansion of oil and gas that menaces human survival. Credit: Andrea Domeniconi/Fossil Free London

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