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‘MAD MEN FUELLING THE MADNESS’- UN SECRETARY GENERAL CALLS FOR FOSSIL FUEL AD BAN

Earlier this month, in a surprise special address in New York to mark World Environment Day, the UN secretary seneral António Guterres directly challenged Fossil Fuel companies and the agencies who promote them. 

Calling Oil & Gas giants ‘the Godfathers of Climate Chaos’ and the agencies who promote their lies and greenwash ‘Mad Men fuelling the madness’ he backed the call for the world to stop promoting its own destruction and introduce a tobacco-style ban on fossil fuel adverts.

In a year when almost half of the world is going to the polls, and when many political leaders are distracted and dragging their feet on climate, this marks an extraordinary intervention, which is highly unusual in the world of international diplomacy.

“Fossil fuel advertising is everywhere and we are all being duped by it. Misleading claims from fossil fuel firms touting that they are part of the solution, and glitzy greenwashing that seeks only to confuse, are making us think that we can continue polluting and consuming as if the climate crisis wasn’t bearing down on us. But we can’t.”

JAmes Ward, Adfree Cities

Guterres emphasised how the fossil fuel industry has, like the tobacco industry before it, shown ‘relentless zeal for obstructing progress’ on climate action over decades, spending billions on ‘distorting the truth, deceiving the public and sowing doubt’.  He then turned his attention to the ad makers themselves. 

The secretary general highlighted how fossil fuel companies ‘have been aided and abetted by advertising and PR companies – Mad Men fuelling the madness.’ He called on the ad sector to ‘stop acting as enablers of planetary destruction,’ and to ‘stop taking on new fossil fuel clients, from today, and set out plans to drop your existing ones.’ He argued that the industry’s creative minds should instead turn their skills to promoting climate solutions.

Guterres also made calls for further regulation of fossil fuel advertising.  On the role of governments, he said, ‘I also call on countries to act. Many governments restrict or prohibit advertising for products that harm human health – like tobacco. Some are now doing the same with fossil fuels. I urge every country to ban advertising from fossil fuel companies.’

UN secretary general Antonio Guterres speaking on World Environment Day

As Adfree Cities has reported, both Sheffield and Edinburgh have revised their advertising and sponsorship policies in recent weeks to specifically exclude fossil fuel companies and products.  That makes them, together with Cambridgeshire, Coventry and Somerset, leaders across the UK in addressing Antonio Guterres’ concerns about the social and environmental damage being wrought by advertising.

Guterres then also urged ‘news media and tech companies to stop taking fossil fuel advertising’, making it clear that the responsibility for ending the influence of advertising lies within both civic and corporate sectors. 

Sponsorship, particularly in the worlds of culture and sport, is also part of how fossil fuel companies advertise and buy social acceptability. As evidenced by the recent ruling around fossil fuel advertising and sponsorship in Edinburgh, and the end of Toyota’s Olympics sponsorship, ending fossil fuel advertising will also naturally extend to ending highly polluting sponsorship deals. 

Image: Wankers of the World for Brandalism, 2024. British Cycling announced a sponsorship deal with Shell in 2022.

The high profile sponsorship of sporting and cultural events by companies and institutions with ties to both fossil fuels and weaponry implicated in the ongoing assault on Gaza is coming under a new level of scrutiny this summer.  Baillie Gifford has already been forced to withdraw its support of a slate of literary festivals, and Barclays’ sponsorship of Wimbledon is attracting uncomfortable attention from high-profile names. 

Pointing out that people are already ahead of politicians, Guterres also raised the urgent need to reduce demand by ‘phasing down fossil fuels in our own lives’. In this context, the logic of the call to ban fossil fuel advertising also clearly applies to high-carbon industries, such as aviation and car manufacturers.

In the UK, the call for government action offers campaigning political parties an easy way to promote positive climate action, simply by removing additional pressure to consume polluting products and services. Ad bans will not prevent people from flying, for example, but they will reduce overall amounts of flying, which are influenced by massive ad campaigns encouraging people to take flights.

James Ward from Adfree Cities said: “Fossil fuel advertising is everywhere and we are all being duped by it. Misleading claims from fossil fuel firms touting that they are part of the solution, and glitzy greenwashing that seeks only to confuse, are making us think that we can continue polluting and consuming as if the climate crisis wasn’t bearing down on us. But we can’t. Regulation is so far behind this issue that it is almost useless. We need to end fossil fuel advertising, just like we did with tobacco, and begin the process of transitioning away from fossil fuels once and for all.”

Feature image: Matt Bonner

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