Lies, Damned Lies and Green Advertising
“It’s a pleasure, but not a guilty one,” promises a recent Mercedes-Benz magazine advertisement for its E-class luxury sedans.
The car is photographed under soft light, in a hardwood-paneled garage. It’s clearly aimed at the sort of person who buys carbon offsets after flying to business conferences, who wants to believe that it’s possible to have the cake of consumer excess and eat it, too.
But there’s a catch: only two of 24 E-class models actually meet the CO2 pollution standards described in the ad.
Last week, after reviewing the ad, the Advertising Standards Agency — an industry group that regulates commercials in the U.K. — ordered Mercedes-Benz to pull it. Being a private group, that represented the limit of their power; but even if the ASA had governmental authority, they couldn’t have done much more. Mercedes-Benz didn’t lie outright or break any truth-in-advertising laws. The pictured vehicle was one of the two cleaner models. Mercedes simply veiled the truth, and posed it in a suggestive manner.
Several more green-tinged ASA decisions are discussed by University of Glamorgan communications professor Susan Hogben in a recent Language & Ecology article. Hogben focuses on how marketers use simple but irresistible tricks of visual cognition to make false but plausible claims: Renault tailpipes spouting leaves, Shell smokestacks belching flowers, Volkswagens resting in sunlit fields with painted deer grazing in the background.
What the well-meaning Advertising Standards Agency doesn’t realize, writes Hogben, is that these aren’t just neutral backgrounds. They’re part of a visual language built on decades of cognitive and psychological research, and used to sell products to a generation of people whose minds are more comfortable with images than words.
By focusing almost entirely on verbal language, the ASA is fighting the last war. And they’re not unique: the Federal Trade Commission, the federal body charged with regulating commercial speech in the United States, also pays far more attention to words than images.
“Corporate marketing already seems wise to the different degrees of scrutiny paid to textual claims and visual representations about environmental goods,” writes Hogben. “If exploitation of images that are known to be treated as fanciful confections continues to go unaddressed the consequences are likely to be profound.”
In other words: if the watchers don’t watch the pictures, we’ll keep on thinking that crappy, polluting, life-spoiling junk is actually clean. We’ll think we’re doing some good by buying it, and all the responsible, genuinely green businesses will tank.
So what’s the FTC going to do? At the very least, they’ve recognized the need for standardized, trustworthy measures of commercial green, and even appear to be doing something about it. I’ll try to speak with them for next week’s post, and also look at how companies are responding to the FTC’s push.