Greenwashing in Advertising

Advertisers say and do a lot of things to get you to buy their products, even lie; greenwashing is an example of that. Greenwashing has been around for few years and it’s become prevalent in advertising. Greenwashing in advertising is wrong because it frames environmental concern as consumerism.  Through analysis of four commercials of “green” products the concept of greenwashing in advertising will be further examined.

So what is greenwashing? According to Merriam-Webster, it is expressions of environmentalist concerns especially as a cover for products, policies, or activities. This echoes the argument that is being made about what companies are doing when they commit greenwashing.  “Advertising has one more remarkable quality, one seldom asked of it these days, at least in broadcast form: the power to persuade. To change minds, and feelings on a mass scale” (Garfield). This quote explains the motive for why advertising companies participate in greenwashing. They know that the public will listen to them and buy into whatever it is that they’re selling.  Even though people may not stand for what the company’s message is they still fall victim to buying what they the company is selling.

Selling is the main component of consumerism, which society is a product of.  “Brands, products, fashion, celebrities, entertainments—the spectacles that surround the production of culture—are our culture now. Our role is mostly to listen and watch—and then based on what we have heard or seen, to buy” (Lasn 3). Lasn makes a valid point that we are a product of our culture and that culture is consumerism.  Humans are basically robots that are controlled by big businesses to buy various products and to tell their friends about these products so they will buy and so on. The process is an ongoing cycle that will continue unless consumers get smart and try to break the system. Consumerism is connected to greenwashing in that it is the real intention for it. The brands and products that we buy that are “eco-friendly” are not really good for the environment they just have that label on them to get people to buy the product. Humans are a ploy in big business’ plan to remain dominant over the economy and the world.

So how does big business implement their plan of greenwashing? Through the seven sins of greenwashing and they are:

  1. Sin of the Hidden Trade-Off
  • A claim suggesting that a product is ‘green’ based on a narrow set of attributes without attention to other important environmental issues.
  • 2.Sin of No Proof
  • An environmental claim that cannot be substantiated by easily accessible supporting information or by a reliable third-party certification.
  • 3.Sin of Vagueness
  • A claim so poorly defined or broad that its real meaning is likely to be misunderstood by the consumer.
  • 4.Sin of Worshipping False Labels
  • A product that, through either words or images, gives the impression of third-party endorsement where no such endorsement exists; fake labels, in other words.
  • 5.Sin of Irrelevance
  • An environmental claim that may be truthful but is unimportant or unhelpful for consumers seeking environmentally preferable products.
  • 6.Sin of Lesser of Two Evils
  • A claim that may be true within the product category, but that risks distracting the consumer from the greater environmental impacts of the category as a whole
  • 7.Sin of Fibbing
  • Environmental claims that are simply false.

These seven sins are the basis of how greenwashing is implemented in advertising. All of these tactics are used in the four commercials that will be analyzed later on.  The four companies’ commercials that were examined were Mazda, Dawn, Ford and Audi.

The first commercial that was looked at was a 2012 commercial for Mazda. This commercial was advertising Mazda’s new car with what they called “Skyactiv Technology”. Not only was the commercial for that, but it also was a promo for the 2012 children’s movie Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax. This commercial was geared to persuade parents to buy the car and to drive that car to take their children to go see the movie. On the surface, it was supposed to be a cute commercial that is promoting a sustainable environment while having fun with cartoons Underneath all of the fluff, this was propaganda and shameless plugs for both products. The tone in this commercial was very arrogant in that the voice over kept asking what car had all of these special items along with Skyactiv Technology then the animals would respond with Mazda but give their own type of answers.

The commercial was dumbed down so that the children who were watching the commercial would understand what is going on. The end of the commercial has one of the characters reminding the voice over to promote the movie and this was to keep the children interested. The advertisers recreated the world from the movie and it was portrayed as this environmental utopia and the message was that this world would only exist if you buy this car and to go see The Lorax when it is in theaters. This commercial is the perfect example of greenwashing because the companies involved pretend to care about the environment but in reality all they want people to do is buy their products.

The greenwashing sin that Mazda commits is the sin of vagueness. The commercial only talked about the fuel efficiency of the car and the Skyactiv Technology but never went into depth about other details of the car. The advertisers were too busy trying to get the kids to go see The Lorax than telling the adults who were watching more about the car.

The second company’s commercial that was analyzed was a commercial for Dawn dishwashing liquid soap. This commercial came out right after the BP oil spill in 2010. At this time, Americans were upset about the spill and were all for being environmentally friendly. The commercial shows some animals being cleaned in a small tub with Dawn. The advertisement’s message is that in order to keep animals affected by the oil spill clean is to use Dawn dishwashing liquid. In the commercial, the company gives relaying the message that in order to help save wildlife people have to spend a dollar on their soap. There is lighthearted music playing in the background and at the end the duck that was being cleaned off quacked at the camera. These aspects of the commercial were to reel in environmentalists and to convince them that Dawn is on their side. Logically, to clean an animal people wouldn’t use dishwashing liquid. The chemicals in most cleaning products are thought of as hazardous to our health. When looking at this commercial people should think: Would I clean myself with dishwashing liquid? Most likely not because it’s not what we use but the chemicals in the product are harmful.

The greenwashing sin that Dawn committed was sin of fibbing because dishwashing liquid wouldn’t help clean animals. It has never been proven that dishwashing liquid helps to clean animals. This commercial was a fake attempt to pretend to care about the community and the company knew that it would work because consumers were vulnerable after the oil spill.

The third company’s commercial that was analyzed was Ford. This commercial talked about their new hybrid and showed the process of making the car. It showed how the seats were now made of soybeans. There was a lady in the commercial that worked for Ford and was talking about the car. She was also seen driving in one. There were some statistics that were shown one in particular said that 300 pounds of plastic are used to make one vehicle. She used words like environmentally friendly and sustainable. This is jargon that Ford knew would get environmentalists to tune in. There is also a parental angle because the woman mentions how she and some of her coworkers are mothers and they want to see the planet cleaner. The commercial never went into detail about how much plastic were used in Ford’s vehicles and the seats were being pushed on a crane made of metal. Nothing everything involved was sustainable.

The sin that was committed by Ford was the sin of irrelevance. While having seats made of soybeans is great for a car, it’s not that important or essential. There are more important aspects of the car that aren’t mentioned in the commercial like miles to the gallon, what kind of fuel is used, etc. This commercial is just a ploy to get environmentalists to buy their new car. The ending of the commercial says to drive green and then the Ford logo appears with their “Drive one” slogan. This suggests that the ultimate goal for Ford is not to be sustainable, but to have everyone driving their cars.

The fourth and final commercial that was analyzed was for Audi. The commercial shows alternative ways of traveling, but Audi is making fun of those ways in order to make their product look better. Audi is also making a stereotype that environmentalists that use these forms of transportation are nerds. They are also saying that in order to be cool that you have to drive an Audi. The voice over says that the people who are using the other alternatives are trying to do their part, but people who drive an Audi have more fun. The ending shows the phrase “Diesel is no longer a dirty word” and this should alarm environmentalists because diesel should never be thought of as a dirty word. Diesel is supposed to help the environment and not hurt it. Boosting themselves and tearing down other proves that Audi isn’t concerned about the environment but more about trying to makeover the image of the environmentalist.

The greenwashing sin Audi commits is the sin of hidden trade-off. This is shown through their observations of alternative solutions to driving a car and the portrayal of environmentalists. None of the characters have a smile on their faces and the backgrounds are gloomy and dark. Meanwhile, the Audi is being driven on this clean road and the sun is out.  The commercial never goes into any detail about what the Audi does. All the commercial does is show how pretty the Audi is compared to other alternatives. These tidbits don’t help environmentalists decide whether they want to buy the product or not because there aren’t concrete facts showing why consumers should go this route instead of riding on the bus or riding a bike.

Greenwashing in advertising or in any field is not good because it gives consumers false hope that big business actually cares about the environment. The more support and money these companies get the longer this fake concern will continue. The companies should go a different route to promote environmental issues other than saying, “Buy my product!” and the consumers should do more background before considering buying these products.

2 responses to “Greenwashing in Advertising

  1. Can you embed videos for the viewer? That first ad of the skinny water bottle is infuriating! What are your thoughts on that one?

    • I wasn’t able to embed the videos on the post itself but when you click on the company name it goes to the video. I’ll delete the picture.

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