In September 2019, the Swedish newspaper Dagens ETC announced that it would no longer take advertising money to promote fossil fuel-based goods and urged other media outlets to consider doing the same.
Yesterday, the Guardian followed suit and, effective immediately, has banned ads from any business involved in extracting fossil fuels. The Guardian’s acting chief executive, Anna Bateson, and the chief revenue officer, Hamish Nicklin, said in a joint statement:
Our decision is based on the decades-long efforts by many in that industry to prevent meaningful climate action by governments around the world.
Fossil fuels ads are part of a larger playbook -- pioneered by the tobacco industry -- to mislead the public on climate change.
The tactics used by Big Polluters to mislead the public about the threat of burning fossil fuels has long been compared to misinformation campaigns perpetrated by the tobacco industry in the 1950s.
They even hired many of the “same PR firms, used many of the same advertising agencies, and, in some cases, used the same people to promote their message” and execute wide-reaching, decades-long PR campaigns to disassociate their products from global warming.
A survey of ExxonMobil’s paid, editorial-style advertisements (advertorials) published on the op-ed page of The New York Times from 1977 to 2014 found that 81% expressed doubt about the occurrence and causes of climate change even though “80% of [the company’s] internal documents acknowledge that climate change is real and human-caused.”
Now, no longer able to deny climate change or spin the multitude of reports connecting the burning of fossil fuels to the climate crisis, Big Polluters are implementing a new ad strategy.
A new wave of fossil fuel ads is recasting the industry as a climate hero.
Just this month, the largest fossil fuel trade group, the American Petroleum Industry, launched a seven-figure ad campaign, titled “Energy for Progress.” The campaign promotes the industry’s “efforts” to reduce carbon emissions and build on the group’s “We’re On It” ads, which tout the leadership of oil and gas corporations on climate.
As The New Republic recently reported, the industry’s PR as a good-faith partner on climate action “doesn’t stand up to basic scrutiny,” as a new report by “hardly progressive International Energy Agency” finding that oil and gas companies are investing very little - less than one percent of total expenditures - into alternative (cleaner) forms of energy. The piece also noted that “these companies reliably pour millions of dollars into fighting off climate policies they disagree with (which is, to say, most of them).”
But as David Roberts of Vox lamented on Twitter, many media outlets will gladly place the ads even though they are “utter bullshit.”
When was the last time you saw a tobacco ad?
The two recent announcements by newspapers to ban fossil fuel ads serve as an alternative to promoting Big Polluter propaganda -- until fossil fuels companies are held liable by courts or Congress for their decades-long deception on climate change.
The media didn’t volunteer to quit tobacco. A series of government policies and court mandates are primarily responsible for tobacco’s advertising demise.
In 1970, five years after the U.K. banned cigarette ads from its airwaves, President Richard Nixon signed legislation banning tobacco ads on television and radio in the United States. The law followed a federal government report linking smoking to low birth weight.
In 1998, as part of the major U.S. tobacco companies’ civil litigation settlement with 46 U.S. states, Washington, D.C., and five territories, more advertising restrictions were imposed, including bans on transit and billboard advertisements and paid brand product placement.
In 2006, in a case brought by the federal government, the court found that tobacco companies had violated civil racketeering laws by covering up the negative health effects of smoking and ordered them to issue “corrective statements” that would inform the public about the dangers of smoking.
Litigation against fossil fuel companies has been ramping up in the last decade. As of December 2019, communities and governments across the country have named dozens of companies in more than a dozen climate liability lawsuits. But those cases could take years to resolve.
There has been no federal policy that even hints at holding fossil fuel companies accountable for misleading the public, though the first hearings to determine how much (and when) Exxon knew about the dangers of fossil fuels were held this past fall by the House oversight committee.
These hearings have only scratched the surface of the industry’s influence and could be the beginning of a congressional record to hold Big Polluters accountable.
But until that record turns into action, media outlets like the Guardian and Dagens ETC are breaking ground on fossil fuel accountability by depriving these companies of a platform to spread misleading information. Other outlets should take note.