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Bad advertising, better futures

Amidst the news circus and news fakery, which have made life even more exciting in the vortex of the pandemic, there just popped up a piece of welcome diversion.

Published: 25th October 2020 05:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 25th October 2020 02:56 PM   |  A+A-

Amidst the news circus and news fakery, which have made life even more exciting in the vortex of the pandemic, there just popped up a piece of welcome diversion. Last week brought good tidings from Bajaj Auto followed by Parle Products, which said they were going to pull the plug off advertising on channels, which broadcast ‘toxic’ content.

Now isn’t that sweet? At least someone was addressing the elephant of advertising in the room. But what has this to do with better, greener futures, which is our chief concern. Let’s see: Advertising... hmm.

That's what drives consumption—unsustainable consumption—pushing the world to the brink. Should consumers take some blame? Not producers. Producers advertise to say how clean and green they really are and we the consumers wallow in self-doubt; how blind we have been not to notice.

A morsel of boring statistics, just to prove the point: According to a Forbes report, the fossil fuel industry channelled USD 1.4 billion in PR and advertising during the last decade. Whoa! Pretty sum isn’t it? In fact, you will be rolling with glee under the artificial illumination of your solar-lit boudoirs when you hear that this amount was six times of what had been spent on renewable energy.

Nice touch that one. So, advertising to paint the world green and fuel consumerism while the carbon monster fattens on a diet of lifestyles and unsustainable growth: Oil-guzzling SUVs radiating power, megacities lit up with the darkness of coal, an insatiable urge to travel far in the shortest time. Bad advertising has served its masters well, especially those adepts in the trick of the eye, in which black becomes green.

The creative purveying of ambiguities, deceptions, omissions and falsifications about environmental impacts of products through advertisements, should be part of the school syllabi. What schools? Maybe those that train spies. Undercover agents could do with the storytelling skills of creative directors who conceive misleading ads. Let’s see what researchers have found: An Asian Journal of Communication study (2014) revealed that more than half of the green claims made in English advertisements in the Indian print media were green-washed.

What more, the same report discovered that only about three percent advertisers backed their environmental claims with certifications. Three percent! Doesn’t that sort of instill confidence? Can we still try and shift the blame upon consumers? Can we not fault the audience for visiting a gallery running a trick-photography exhibition?

Does the Indian consumer at all care for the real real, as in the real sustainable organic chicken, raised on pesticide and antibiotic free real organic feed in real rustic surroundings by really happy farmers? Alas, they do! A Unilever survey (2017) found that 88 percent Indian consumers feel better when they purchase sustainably produced commodities compared to 53 percent in the UK.        

Is there no means for consumers to satisfy their needs within the limits of sustainability without being misled by green advertisements that purvey photoshopped realities? For starters, we have the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI), a self-regulatory industry body.

Also there are case laws and the Central Government recently published draft (for comments) guidelines for misleading ads under its consumer protection law, which however doesn’t mention environmental claims.

 So, a self-regulatory body with neither canines nor crushers and a set of wide open guidelines in the making. Suppose we could do better placing the sacred books at the doorsteps of agencies and their clients. 

No respite then, from these do-gooders weaving fantasies of a clean green planet while quietly stoking the fires of our greed, which propels us towards climate breakdown and ecological emergency. What lies beyond weak laws and self-regulation, maybe strong laws and persuasion? 

Speaking of tough laws, the Badvertising campaign in the UK has been demanding a ban on adverts for polluting SUVs. Elsewhere, responding to a call from the climate group Extinction Rebellion, more than 130 agencies have signed a Creative Climate Disclosure Letter promising to reveal the percentage of their revenues from fossil fuel and other high-carbon clients. How about something similar in this country? 

The persuasive powers of responsible advertising as made evident in videos like ‘Our House is on Fire’ by Greta Thunberg’s Fridays for Future cannot also be ignored. However, if all else fails and desperation sets in on a night lit by wildfires of climate chaos, will we be pressed to seek the assistance of dark powers? Those, who can vex and tease the elephant of bad advertising into retreat.  

(The author is a writer and climate activist and can be contacted at rajat@rajatchaudhuri.net)



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