Licence to pollute

We are all by now aware of the role fossil fuel companies play in driving the climate crisis. However, what is sometimes overlooked is the ability oil and gas companies have to continue operating despite massive public opposition to what they do. This is what’s known as social licence, and it comes down to clever – albeit misleading – marketing.

Oil companies spend many millions each year to tell citizens, financial institutions, and policymakers that ‘energy companies’ are doing everything in their power to safeguard the planet for future generations. Cast your mind back to the last energy advertisement that included images of refineries, drilling rigs, smog and geysers of oil.  It doesn’t happen.

Instead we are inundated with ads full of windmills, nature, smiling children frollicking in green pastures, promises of a greener brighter future brought about through untested technologies. Greenwashing is a subtle art, cultivated over many decades.

Join the call for a high carbon ad ban

Hundreds of people have already written to their MP to call for an end to fossil fuel advertising. Will you join them?

Two placards leaning against a wall. One reads "Ban fossil fuel ads" the other reads "Greenwashing is a fossil crime"

Our work on Big Oil advertising

Adfree Cities has been working hard to combat Big Oil greenwash, and we’ve had some big wins.

Shell’s Ready for Greenwash

In June 2023, ads by Shell – made by agency Wunderman Thompson – were banned by the UK ad regulator following a complaint by Adfree Cities. 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.

A group of people face the camera whilst holding placards and a banner. The banner reads "Stop greenwash lies" and the placards are shaped like the Shell logo.

Fighting the source

We don’t just challenge the Big Oil giants, we take the fight to the ad agencies that work for them.


Repsol the repeat offender

At the same time as the Shell ruling in June 2023, an ad from Spanish oil company Repsol promoting biofuels was banned in a suite of Big Oil greenwash rulings that were hailed as landmark actions that would prevent similar greenwashing in future.

Just 4 weeks later, however, another Repsol ad appeared, this time focusing on renewable hydrogen, a fuel type Repsol didn’t even produce at the time the ad ran. Amazingly, the ad regulator refused to ban the ads outright, despite being blatant greenwash. Instead, Adfree Cities had to submit a whole new complaint – which we subsequently won.

Regulation of oil and gas greenwash is wildly inadequate. That’s why we’re calling for a comprehensive ban on fossil fuel ads to be introduced at a national level, just like how we don’t allow tobacco ads. Find out more about a high carbon ad ban here.

Equinor

Throughout the spring and summer of 2023, as the UK government was gearing up to make a decision on the controversial Rosebank oil field, Norwegian oil giant Equinor (who own 80% of Rosebank) filled the pages of the Financial Times and The Economist with ads brandishing “Broader Energy” claims.

In December 2023, the adverts were banned as officially “misleading” by the UK advertising regulator for implying that wind farms, oil and gas, and carbon capture played a balanced role in Equinor’s energy mix, when in fact the company remained overwhelmingly invested in fossil fuels.

In a moment of ‘saying the quiet part loud’, Equinor admitted in response to the ASA’s investigation of the ads that “[the ad] did not advertise any consumable product or service, and was not aimed at the general public, but at decision-makers and their influencers, a group that included politicians in government and opposition, as well as advisors and journalists.” 

The Hell Bus tour 2023

In September 2023 we joined artist Darren Cullen (aka Spelling Mistakes Cost Lives) and Switch-It Green to take Darren’s brilliant Hell Bus on a tour of UK towns and cities, raising awareness of Shell’s legacy of greenwash.

The Hell Bus is somewhere between a museum and a satirical art exhibition that charts Shell’s long history of misleading the public and policy makers on the reality of climate change and the company’s own role in driving it. The tour was hugely popular, attracting thousands of visitors to the bus and to the events we held in the places we visited.

All aboard and straight to hell

It’s difficult to adequately describe the Hell Bus, but this blog does a pretty good job. Strap in and ride along with us as we travel to the underworld.

Three people stand in front of a yellow bus that says "Hell"