Shell’s misleading green ads: A lesson in transparent communication


Sustainble green building

Freeths Intellectual Property and Media Partner Iona Silverman examines the recent case of a “misleading” advert by Shell and how making accurate green claims has become more complex.

In a recent development that throws a spotlight on the intricate aspects of green marketing, Shell’s renewable energy advertising has been flagged as misleading by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA). This incident underscores the complexities inherent in making accurate and compelling green claims.

Shell, an energy behemoth known for its diverse array of operations, had recently launched a series of advertising campaigns across various mediums like posters, TV and YouTube. The central theme of these ads was to generate awareness and cultivate demand for their lower-emission energy products and services. The campaign made several green claims, including references to their renewable energy, wind-powered energy, low-carbon choices and cleaner energy.

The ASA instructed Shell to ensure their future ads do not mislead consumers by exaggerating or omitting essential information.

Interestingly, Shell had substantiated their renewable energy claims appropriately, even referencing data from the National Grid. However, despite this accuracy, the ads were found to be misleading. The ASA determined that these promotional materials presented an inflated view of Shell’s involvement in lower-carbon energy products and services, without clarifying the proportion of their overall business that these green initiatives represented.

The ASA’s objection primarily stemmed from the fact that while the green claims in the ads were substantiated, they were not balanced by an accurate representation of Shell’s total business activities.

These activities still include substantial and growing fossil fuel production, creating a discrepancy between the perception created by the ads and the company’s actual environmental footprint. Consequently, the ASA instructed Shell to ensure their future ads do not mislead consumers by exaggerating or omitting essential information about the extent of their lower carbon activities.

This decision resonates with an earlier ruling regarding HSBC. It suggests that even if a company can authenticate its green claims, it still might produce misleading advertisements if it fails to provide consumers with an accurate understanding of its overall sustainability.

Avoiding greenwashing: What’s the solution?


Therefore, brands must take heed and incorporate the following steps in their advertising strategies:

  • Provide evidence for their green claims using relevant data.
  • Include the data source within the ad if it offers vital context for consumers to understand the claim.
  • Portray the green claims in the ad while keeping the overall balance of their activities in mind, without resorting to exaggeration or omission of key information.
  • While Shell’s ad has been banned by the ASA, what is perhaps even more significant is the attention the decision has garnered from the press. Navigating the green advertising landscape is undoubtedly challenging, and a single misstep can severely tarnish years of built-up green credentials. Hence, the need to handle green claims with great caution cannot be overstressed.

To delve deeper into the topic and explore ways to mitigate risks around green claims, Freeths is hosting a webinar on 20 July titled “Sustainability with substance”.

To ensure transparent communication about a company’s green initiatives, it’s vital to convey not just the strides being made towards sustainability, but also to frame these within the larger context of the company’s overall operations. This case serves as a crucial reminder of that responsibility.

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