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.