The best source of environmental stories that you’ve never heard of

What you should know about "green" ads.

If you make it green, people will buy. Or so goes the current marketing philosophy. Today’s news pages are filled with stories about businesses that are doing their part for the environment. And as you read the story on one page, on the facing page a concomitant, eco-friendly advertisement whispers: you need me.

Environmental advertising has spiked in the press, piggybacking off the rise in related articles. However, while journalists happily trumpet the eco-efforts of Wal-Mart, Dupont, Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), and their ilk, they pay relatively little attention to the advertising that is often plastered next to their stories. Only a few publications have given the subject any attention at all.

That’s too bad, because it is a topic that is stocked to the gunwales with tales of incongruity, malfeasance, and puffery. Among those few articles that have taken a critical look at green advertising, most focused on the question of whether there is effective oversight. The answer, it seems, is a qualified yes, but most journalists can’t seem to find the organization that provides that oversight, and when they do they often mischaracterize its work.

So without further ado, a primer.

Most of the advertising industry relies on a system of voluntary self-regulation administered the Council of Better Business Bureaus. There is a parallel regulatory system, run the by the Federal Trade Commission, with courts and all, but the majority of all marketing disputes are resolved without litigation. In the world of self-regulation, the arbiter of disputes is the National Advertising Division (NAD) of the Better Business council. A lot of the problems with the coverage of green marketing begin with reporters’ misunderstanding of this organization and its purposes.

I called the NAD, and as it turns out, the small office is a fount of information for science and environment writers on a variety of consumer affairs stories—from automobiles, to travel, to construction materials, to energy.

Everyone wants to know the same thing about green advertising: Is the product really Earth-friendly or just opportunistic “greenwashing,” as they say? A recent cover story in Advertising Age attempted an answer, warning, “going green is a perilous business, especially for those whose actions aren’t as substantive as their ads.” But the author, Mya Frazier, has trouble making the case. Most of her piece is dedicated to rehashing current ad campaigns and some businesses’ reluctance to push the green envelope. We do learn, via a sidebar, that after “years” (six to be exact, but the number isn’t included) without a single green-marketing dispute, six have been adjudicated in the last year alone.

Here’s where the NAD could have helped Frazier make her case, and yet it isn’t even clear that she is referring to that particular organization, as she doesn’t mention it by name until later in the article. Instead, the next sentence begins with the National Advertising Review Board, another arm of the Better Business council’s voluntary self-regulation program. The Review Board, however, merely handles appeals by businesses that wish to contest NAD decisions. “We live in such an alphabet soup most people that write about us don’t get it straight,” said Linda Bean, the bureau’s communications officer.

Whereas the AdAge piece suggests that the watchdog is working, a BusinessWeek article from early April—“Why the Hype Keeps on Coming”—reaches the opposite conclusion. Pallavi Gogoi argues that nonbinding self-regulation is, by its nature, impotent. “The few weeks or months that most companies’ ad campaigns run are usually over before anyone gets exercised over their claims,” she writes. “By then the companies have already achieved their objective of goosing sales and the public is often unaware of any court rulings or government orders against the ads.” Derisively, she calls the NAD a “program of the advertising industry which investigates the accuracy of advertising claims.”

Um, well, actually it’s not. And here again we see how confusion over the NAD and its role can undercut an otherwise fine journalistic attempt to explain whether the proliferation of green marketing is properly regulated.

The NAD is comprised of eight lawyers headed by Andrea Levine, a former litigious regulator who cut her teeth in the New York state attorney general’s office. Gogoi may have been thinking of the National Advertising Review Council (NARC, also under the Better Business council’s umbrella), which has a few representatives from the major advertisers’ trade unions on its board and sets policies and procedures for the NAD. “We are a self-regulatory system that was created by the industry, but it is not staffed or administered by the industry,” Levine said. “They play no role in what cases we pursue and what decisions we make.”

The idea behind self-regulation is to avoid the lethargic government bureaucracy and expensive litigation that comes with filling suit at the FTC. The NAD issues far more decisions—over 150 a year—than any other regulatory body, according to Levine, and it achieves the same results as a court would. As far as green marketing, the NAD has seen a resurgence of complaints following the resurgence in advertising, evidence that the system is working.

“What I’m seeing is more seriousness of purpose,” said Levine of today’s advertising campaigns, which, in her opinion, are peddling environmental claims more earnestly than ever before. The early 1990s were the real heyday of environmental advertising, when marketers first employed the term “environmentally friendly” en masse to describe a variety of consumer goods. Ozone and plastics were important buzzwords, but, according to Levine, the state of green advertising was more of a free-for-all than it is now. For example, she said, old campaigns purported that disposable plastic forks are eco-friendly because they save washing, and others promoted “clean air” gasoline. Or, Levine added, “You’d say that something’s ozone friendly because you took the CFCs [chlorofluorocarbons] out by law, but left all the other volatile chemicals – that’s frivolous.”

Today’s wave of environmental marketing does not reach the scale of the early 1990s, according to Levine, but it is geared toward more consequential technological advances. Even if they are sometimes boastful or false, modern ads promote stuff like sustainable construction materials, non-toxic baby and hygiene products, and low emissions machinery. So businesses are publicizing (sometimes at a financial loss) their eco-credentials, and being more careful about it. “I think it’s a good thing,” Levine said.

Not all cases that come before the NAD (75 percent are competitor-generated) involve high-profile decisions about public safety and environmental impact. But even when the organization investigates the low-carb claims of a potato-chip manufacturer, it is playing a more significant role in the national debate than most journalists realize. “The FDA [Food & Drug Administration] still doesn’t have standards for carbo claims,” Levine explained, “but a few years ago, we started deciding cases, which laid the ground rules.” Ninety-five percent of companies that use the self-regulation program comply with NAD decisions. The office’s lawyers maintain a constant conversation with high-level scientists around the country to support their investigations, and its database goes back thirty-five years, with more than 4,000 archived decisions.

The NAD is cited in news stories a few times a year, but rarely mentioned twice. It made big headlines in 1998, when it took on the Nuclear Energy Institute, the industry trade group, over ads that claimed nuclear power was “environmentally clean.” It is true that nuclear does not produce the air pollution associated with fossil fuels, but the Institute’s advertising presented “a much broader message than the underlying evidence could support,” Levine told me.

Now the environment is back on the NAD’s radar screen, and Levine urges journalists to use her organization as a source of information. The NAD issues over 300 press releases a year; because they relate to advertising, however, Levine worries that reporters overlook good stories. Last October, when the Bush administration announced a new military “surge” in Iraq, United Airlines began advertising discounted, reserve seats for military personnel. In fact, the “special” seats were among the lot of bargain spots offered to all travelers. A number of enlisted flyers that tried to get tickets complained and the NAD stepped in and asked the airline to explain itself. United snubbed the organization, however, declining to participate in the self-regulation process. Its lawyers argued that the Department of Transportation (DOT) has sole jurisdiction over marketing in the aviation industry. Levine was aware this, but noted that, “the DOT has more important things to do, such as ensuring safety, than worry about advertising.” Not a single reporter wrote about United’s attempt to trade on patriotism.

Another potential story—given the prevalence of obesity-related articles in the press—is a recent string (at least three in the last two years) of complaints against hospitals that promote bariatric weight-loss surgery. The list of such potentially worthy stories goes on and on, but reporters will have to sift through the NAD press releases or make a quick call to Linda Bean.

As environmental marketing continues to swell in coming years, we will need the media to do a much better job of covering its complexities. The articles that have appeared so far leave many questions unanswered. “They’re just biting at it around the edges,” Bean said of journalists.

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.