BOB GARFIELD: In these days of climate consciousness, touting a close friendship with the environment has become an increasingly popular advertising strategy. Claims of environmental responsibility, responsiveness and concern have brought a green tinge to even the most unlikely products. And because the earth remains largely silent, the truth of these eco-claims are sometimes hard to check.
There have been a few brave souls who've legally challenged the veracity of ads, but the lifespan of an advertisement and the challenge of suing corporations ensure that few succeed.
John Stauber, Executive Director of the Center for Media and Democracy, says this leaves corporations, like British Petroleum, free to wrap themselves in green. JOHN STAUBER: They’ve spent minimally tens of millions - if you added up all their advertising, a lot more than that - trying to convince the public that BP really stands for "Beyond Petroleum." The reality is that BP is one of the world's very largest, perhaps the largest right now, oil company. They've had some horrific oil spills because they haven't been maintaining their pipelines well in Alaska.
And when push comes to shove, this is just a marketing campaign. The more egregious the business or industry, the more egregious the example.
When we're talking about the automobile industry, the petroleum industry, the chemical industry, the mining industry, the logging industry, of course, these are industries that have horrific environmental impacts. Now these companies are trying to convince us that they're going to solve the problem.
But they haven't changed in any fundamental way. They're still lobbying to forestall regulations, and they're launching ad campaigns.
BOB GARFIELD: How are we supposed to judge whether someone is telling a legitimate environmental story in their advertising or P.R. and when they're spreading disinformation, greenwashing? JOHN STAUBER: Well, I think the public becomes very dependent on journalists. When public consciousness about environmentalism seemed low, organizations like Society of Environmental Journalists were reporting that news directors and editors weren't showing much interest in running stories investigating environmental issues. So it becomes a little of a chicken-and-an-egg situation here.
The other protection the public has are environmental organizations, but industry has also learned how to pump money into environmental organizations. So today when I picked up my New York Times there was a full-age ad from the World Wildlife Fund and Coca-Cola telling me what a good global citizen Coca-Cola has become because it's given 20 million dollars to the World Wildlife Fund.
It becomes very difficult to trust the watchdogs when the watchdogs are being fed nice steaks by the burglars. BOB GARFIELD: If someone makes an advertising claim that's competitive, and false, the competitor tends to drag them into federal court and things get litigated there pretty quickly. But other than that, all we can depend on is something called the National Advertising Division of the Council for Better Business Bureaus. Can you tell me the recent history of environmental claims processed by NAD? JOHN STAUBER: The Better Business Bureau for decades and decades has been part of the movement to lift regulations off of industry and get businesses behaving better through something called self-regulation and voluntary regulation.
Not too long ago, the nuclear energy industry was taken into this process because they were making claims that nuclear power is a completely clean energy. They were ruled against in this process, but it really hasn't even slowed them down.
I mean, this is the problem with anything that's voluntary. You either have regulations and people in companies are held to them, or you don't. BOB GARFIELD: Over the past 10 years or so, news organizations have gotten pretty good at truth-squadding political advertising. I gather you think the press has not done such a good job truth-squadding environmental claims. JOHN STAUBER: The press has done a lousy job of truth-squadding environmentally-friendly claims. And I think there's a reason for this. You know, if you look at the business of political advertising, those hundreds of millions of dollars that are being raised for the next Presidential election are mostly [LAUGHS] going into TV media. And if candidate Y isn't spending the money, candidate Z is going to be spending the money.
It's a little safer, frankly, for commercial news media to analyze advertisements from political campaigns. But when they start really analyzing advertisements from commercial advertisers, then they're risking their bottom line. BOB GARFIELD: You're charging here that news organizations are protecting their companies' advertising revenue by not being more vigilant about environmental-themed ads? JOHN STAUBER: Yes. BOB GARFIELD: That's quite a charge. JOHN STAUBER: Well, I'm happy to make it. I really can't think of any other reason why they don't take a hard approach to critiquing claims made by advertisers other than that they think it would come back to hurt them financially. BOB GARFIELD: Okay, John. Thank you so much for joining us.
JOHN STAUBER: Thank you, Bob. BOB GARFIELD: John Stauber is the Executive Director of the Center for Media and Democracy.