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.