Has the ASA gone too far on greenwash?

It seems to me that perhaps they have, at least in this case below.

The Advertising Standards Authority in the UK has been cracking down on Greenwash for a couple of years now.

BrandRepublic reports that:

“A BMW print ad has been banned by the Advertising Standards Authority, after the car maker claimed that its Concept ActiveE vehicle produced “0% emissions”. A viewer complained that the claim of “zero CO2 when driving” could not be substantiated, as the car would be charged with electricity from the National Grid, which would result in the production of emissions.”

The ASA looked at the ad and said: “…the claim “0% emissions” was likely to be interpreted by readers to mean that the cars use would not result in the production of emissions. We noted that the vehicle was only able to operate because it had been charged with electricity from the National Grid, which would result in the production of emissions, contrary to the claim “0% emissions”.”

This is despite the fact that BMW had said in the ad that the lack of emissions was “when driving”, which is true, as far as I can tell.

The ASA said:

“We considered that the inclusion of the phrase “when driving” was contradictory to the overall zero emission claim and the impression that the cars use would not result in the production of emissions. We therefore concluded that the claims “0% emissions” and “zero CO2 emissions when driving” were likely to mislead.”

So the ASA is basically saying that no-one can use the term “zero CO2” if some fossil fuel power has been involved somewhere along the line.

I can understand their caution after the huge growth in dodgy green marketing in the past five years.

But I wonder if this ruling is going a little too far. BMW was not dishonest here.

Perhaps the issue is that the product is a concept car, and is not on sale yet. GM has done the same with the Chevy Volt, making people think they are producing low emission cars when really, it’s business as usual with slightly more efficient engines.

Perhaps that’s why the ASA ruled this way. If you are not actually selling the product, should you be allowed to make it look as if consumers can buy it?

That’s a different question from the ruling above. But if that’s why they made BMW pull the ad, surely they should say so?

It could be I am missing something and that would not be a valid reason, under their rulebook. So they have used the zero emissions reason as a way to have the ad pulled.

I look forward to any and all reader comments on this one…


  1. Has Toby Webb sold out on sustainability?

    Good ol'Nike, good ol'BMW – they're better than their ne'er do well competitors, and therefore… responsible?

    Come off it – you're beginning to sound like you've lost your vision of a better business world.

  2. Thanks anonymous. I haven't sold out, thanks. As the comedian Stewart Lee once said, I've never been given the chance. Seriously, it would be easy for me to rant against big companies all the time. And I have many issues with many of them. But it's also important to recognise progress, and try to stimulate debate. These are as important as throwing rocks in my opinion. Thanks for your comment and I hope you'll add some more in future. Cheers, Toby

  3. Reader comment from James Donovan:

    Dear Mr Webb,

    I'm wild about the response of the Advertising Standards Authority. We would never get that done here. It would be a gross violation of free speech rights. It would constitute socialism, if not communism. It would provide even further evidence that the President is a Kenyan.

    BMW's statement is a lie. An honest statement would disclose that the vehicles still have serious energy and emissions issues. The statement provided is a deliberate effort to mislead poorly informed readers on this point.

    Now, full disclosure, I do bring a couple of biases to these conclusions. First, the car companies need to get into the business of sustainable person mobility or get out of the way for companies, institutions, or mechanisms that will. I don't know of any car companies doing this. Then, mass advertising is a significant impediment to sustainability. It takes our craving to consume and puts it on steroids. We need policies to alleviate its impact.

    Thanks for permitting this response. I enjoy and appreciate the work that you do.

    Jim Donovan
    San Antonio, TX, USA

  4. Here's my response to James's thoughtful previous comment:

    Hi James.

    Thanks for the comment. Would you like to post it on the blog? That would be useful I think.

    I take your points. As I said in a response to another commentator, I do try to provoke debate a little, as well as highlighting issues I think are important. So I was pushing the envelope a little with my post I admit!

    I am not sure that I agree, however, with your assertion that "mass advertising is a significant impediment to sustainability".

    I do agree that in its current form, it can be. But my sincere hope it that with better products on the horizon, it can become an enabler.

    Just as environmental concerns (OK and fuel prices) turned the hummer from hero to zero, the right campaign can have a huge effect. Look at what Unilever has achieved with both iodized salt products and Lifebuoy soap in India, for example. (diarrhoeal deaths down considerably after their hand washing with lifebuoy campaign)

    I know these examples are still few and far between, but I would hope your comment will not be true forever!


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