"We aren't comfortable running that"

Two large advertising platforms rejected a new climate ad campaign because it attacked fossil fuels.

The fate of our climate will not be decided solely by scientists and engineers. It will also be decided by public relations executives. The country’s biggest climate polluters know this well, which is why they pay hundreds of millions of dollars every year to inundate our lives with pro-industry advertisements that make fossil fuels seem green. (We’ve documented some of these ads over the last two years at The Fossil Fuel Ad Anthology. Check it out, and submit, if you’d like).

Realizing this, climate groups have been trying to boost their advertising efforts too. Last week, Accountable.US and Climate Power launched a $1 million ad campaign called Polluters Exposed. Running now in the Washington, D.C. region, the ads claim the fossil fuel industry is blocking climate action and “putting profits over people.” “It’s time to end oil and gas CEOs’ influence and expose their attempts to stand in the way of addressing climate change,” the campaign’s website reads.

Maddie Kriger, Climate Power’s paid media director, said the campaign is necessary to fight back against the oil and gas industry’s prolific advertising presence in D.C. “I believe advertising can affect people’s choices and perceptions,” she said. “If you let [fossil fuel] ads go completely unanswered, you’re basically giving them free rein to push public opinion in the wrong direction.”

But right now, Kriger said it’s near-impossible for climate groups to play the same game as the fossil fuel industry—and not just because of money. While trying to buy ads for the Polluters Exposed campaign, her team discovered that some massive advertising platforms would not accept ads that painted the fossil fuel industry in a negative light. These same platforms routinely accept ads that glorify fossil fuels, and sometimes run ads that attack renewable energy. The rejections they received are indicative of how advertising companies fuel the climate crisis. They might not have the biggest carbon footprints, but they’re the ones covering up the tracks.

The five biggest fossil fuel corporations in America spent a combined $3.6 billion on advertisements from 1986 to 2015—an average of about $124 million a year, according to research published last year in the journal Climatic Change. More often than not, these advertisements attempt to sell consumers on an idea, rather than a product—the main idea being that fossil fuel companies are helping save the world.

Conversely, consumers are rarely shown the idea that fossil fuel companies are helping destroy the world. Fossil fuel companies are the source of more than 70 percent of the world’s carbon emissions since 1970. They are largely responsible for the creation and proliferation of climate science denial. They continue to lobby against the clean energy transition today. Yet it’s hard to find a national ad campaign that explicitly says these things. They exist, but they’re rare.

The Polluters Exposed campaign says it all—at times, using Big Oil’s own words. One digital spot features audio of a secretly-recorded senior ExxonMobil lobbyist admitting the company funded climate denial and policy delay for years. As he speaks, climate disaster footage rolls in the background. “We were looking out for our investments,” he says to hurricane winds and raging fires. “We were looking out for our shareholders.”

Another Polluters Exposed ad pushes back against the common industry claim that Big Oil helps the economy. “Behind the scenes, oil and gas industry CEOs are laying off workers and receiving millions in pay while their lobby works to kill good-paying jobs and block a clean energy future for America,” a deep-voiced narrator says.

Most advertising platforms accepted the Polluters Exposed ads without question, said Kriger. Facebook, Instagram, iHeart, and Spotify, for example, are running a 15-second version of the Exxon ad. The Washington Post also ran a Polluter Exposed digital ad on its homepage last week.

But the Exxon ad was rejected by Gas Station TV, which airs television programming at more than 18,000 gas stations nationwide and reaches more than 75 million unique viewers per month. According to an e-mail exchange forwarded to HEATED, Gas Station TV rejected Climate Power’s attempted $45,000 ad buy because it “represents the fuel industry in a bad light.” A representative for the company said it could
revisit” the Polluters Exposed ad if it was edited to exclude Exxon—“one of our large retail partners”—and “shift the focus to more general pollution messaging.”

While disappointing, Kriger wasn’t exactly surprised by the Gas Station TV snub. “We didn’t know they would reject us, but we had an inkling,” she said.

Kriger was far more surprised by the snub from Clear Channel Outdoors, one of the world’s largest outdoor advertising companies that reaches more than 100 million people monthly. Kriger said Clear Channel rejected her team’s attempt to buy about $45,000 worth of Polluters Exposed billboards around the Washington, D.C. region.

The Polluters Exposed billboards were all supposed to say the same thing: “Putting profits over people. That’s the oil and gas way.” Underneath, the billboards would have shown a URL for the Polluters Exposed website: “Learn more at Polluters.Exposed.”

They were supposed to run in Washington, D.C., near the Capitol, Kriger said, as well as in the neighborhood where the American Petroleum Institute office is located. “We wanted Congress, their staff, reporters, and API staffers to see them,” she said. “We wanted to show we’re not taking this lying down.”

But Clear Channel considered the phrase “Putting profits over people” too opinionated, according to notes a Climate Power media buyer took from the phone call. “We aren't comfortable running that,” a company representative said, according to the notes. “If the tagline was a statistic or a fact that is not explicitly attacking an industry but got your point across, we would consider it.”

The Clear Channel representative also said the company could not include the Polluters Exposed website URL, or include the Polluters Exposed logo, according to the notes.

But Clear Channel has previously run billboards explicitly attacking the renewable energy industry, and including URLs. In March, for example, this reporter drove past a Clear Channel billboard in Minneapolis, Minnesota blaming renewable energy for blackouts in California and Texas. “No blackouts like California and Texas,” it said. “Demand reliable energy!” The billboard included a URL to the website “GreenEnergyFails.com.

The URL directed visitors to a page run by the Center of the American Experiment, a Minnesota-based conservative think tank that denies climate science. The page asked visitors to oppose legislation to make Minnesota carbon neutral by 2040, saying it would “harm all Minnesota families and cause electricity prices to skyrocket, make our electric grid less reliable, and force middle-income Minnesotans to subsidize electric vehicles for wealthy liberals.”

HEATED reached out to Clear Channel to confirm the Climate Power media buyer’s account of their rejection, and explain the difference between the Polluters Exposed and Green Energy Fails billboards. We did not receive a response as of press time.

But let’s say Clear Channel did respond, and promised to start treating anti-renewable ads the same as anti-fossil fuel ads. That still wouldn’t solve the fundamental unfairness problem. To truly even the playing climate field, advertisers have to treat anti-fossil fuel ads the same as pro-fossil fuel ads. Right now, they don’t. But soon, they might have to.

While most advertising platforms allow pro-fossil fuel ads, many do not allow anti-fossil fuel ads. Twitter, which banned “political” ads in 2019, is one of those platforms.

Because of the site’s definition of “political advertising,” ads like Polluters Exposed aren’t allowed to run, because they explicitly attack an industry. But fossil fuel greenwashing ads can and do frequently run, because they simply praise themselves in vague terms. (We’ve brought this to Twitter’s attention several times and have so far received no acknowledgment of the disparity).

“The bar advocacy organizations have to clear is so high when it comes this type of advertising,” Clean Creatives co-founder Duncan Meisel told HEATED last month. “It’s much easier for the corporations, because they can do this sort of soft focus. ‘Isn't our company great, and green, and right.’ That’s effectively lobbying, but because they don't mention a specific issue, it’s not banned.”

In other words, it’s much easier to be a pro-fossil fuel advertiser who lies about why fossil fuels are good than to be a pro-climate advertiser who tells the truth about why fossil fuels are harmful. But several campaigns are underway to ensure this does not remain the case.

Several states and cities are suing fossil fuel giants over their greenwashing ads, alleging they mislead consumers in the same way Big Tobacco ads did. Nearly 100 advertising agencies have signed Clean Creatives’ pledge to never make ads for fossil fuel companies, and a petition by the group is circulating to pressure social media companies to stop running them. A campaign to regulate fossil fuel advertising similarly to tobacco advertising is gaining steam; ClientEarth, which successfully challenged a BP advertising campaign in 2019, wants “health warnings” on every greenwashing ad.

The success of these campaigns to stop misleading pro-fossil fuel ads will be determined by the number of people supporting them. In the meantime, Kriger wants advertising platforms to play fair. “Our opponents’ message is out there,” she said. “We just want a chance to fight back.”

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