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Ads are ubiquitous in most people’s lives – whether on billboards across our cities or on our phones as we are tracked across the internet. This results in a huge amount of power and influence. For example, ads that appeal to eco-conscious consumers have the potential to dramatically affect public perceptions of how brands are addressing climate change, especially as the green advertising trend – i.e., featuring ads that explicitly or implicitly address the relationship between a product or service and the natural environment, promote a green lifestyle, or present a corporation as environmentally responsible – is growing fast. 

Many ads now feature a range of clever tactics – from filling your screen with the color green to using vague terms like “all-natural” – designed to convince you the products they are selling are good for the planet. But when are these ads truly reflective of improvement when it comes to production practices and when are they just another example of greenwashing

As more and more consumers become aware of the harsh reality of climate change and the damaging role consumerism has to play in accelerating it, brands are realizing the need to “put green first” if they want to continue to sell their goods/services. As a result, the last three decades have seen environmental advertising flourish. In reaction, research on green advertising began to emerge in the early 1990s. Although it has been relatively scarce, a growing number of academics have been examining how people respond to green ads – and how realistic these ads actually are. Back in 2009, for instance, a survey found that 80 percent of marketers were preparing to increase spending on green marketing to target more environmentally conscious consumers. And research since has stressed the importance of developing the appropriate blend of communication and messaging techniques in an ad to get those with environmental concerns interested. 

Studies suggest that people’s emotional affinity towards nature has a strong positive influence on their levels of green consumption, and since eco-friendly products are also often more expensive, ads for them tend to play on people’s emotions – rather than focusing on the functional benefits of the products – to encourage purchase. At the same time as companies are touting legitimate efforts on the sustainability front, others are trying to create this effect without the facts to back it. Or in other words, they are engaging in “greenwashing.” Greenwashed ads present confusing or misleading claims that lack concrete information about the actual environmental impacts of whatever’s being advertised. They often involve emotional appeals that make consumers feel good about helping the environment, when the reality is far less palatable. 

(In one of the most recent studies on green advertising published in the European Journal of Marketing, we investigated the role that ad music plays in consumers’ green buying choices, and found that with its strong emotive power, background music can be used as a “peripheral cue” in ads, along with green slogans, to make products seem more positive. But that means companies are able to misuse these emotional appeals to reinforce fabricated promises and weak claims surrounding sustainability.)

If companies’ sustainability claims are publicly debunked, it tends to result in consumer skepticism about the validity of sustainability assertions more broadly, which is an unfortunate barrier for brands that actually offer eco-friendly products and that are less likely to be taken seriously as a result. 

Green claims are frequently used to get people to buy products that simply are not inherently environmentally friendly: from recyclable plastic bottles and disposable coffee cups to flights and combustion cars marketed as having a “lower” – but in reality still very high – impact on the environment. As an example, oil giant BP was accused of misleading customers through an advertising campaign launched in 2019 that allegedly created a potentially deceptive impression of the company by focusing on its renewable energy investments, while oil and gas still make up a significant proportion of its business. BP withdrew the ads in question in February 2020. (Indeed, fossil fuel firms are among the biggest spenders on Google ads that look like search results, which campaigners believe is an example of endemic greenwashing.)

The backlash against instances of perceived greenwashing (in the oil industry and beyond) has led to strategies like “anti-advertising,” a tactic using marketing to explicitly encourage people to buy less. Companies that adopted this strategy, including REI and Patagonia, claim that the test of a brand’s eco-friendly sincerity is whether the products they sell are useful, durable, and high quality, encouraging their customers to buy fewer things that last longer.

Morteza Abolhasani is a Lecturer in Marketing at The Open University. Gordon Liu is a Professor of Marketing Strategy at The Open University. Zahra Golrokhi is a Lecturer in Engineering at The Open University. (This article was initially published by The Conversation.)