Be warned, your sustainability billboards need more small print

  • 9 months ago
  • 4 Minutes to Read
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Emma Jenkins, our Copy and Messaging Strategist, recently posted something on her LinkedIn that caught the attention of The Drum.

Emma wrote about the important role that communication agencies, specifically copywriters, play when impacting consumer behaviour, highlighting their role in climate awareness. In this blog post written for The Drum, Emma emphasises the importance of adhering to the Advertising Standards Authority guidelines, even for LinkedIn mock-up billboards.

It’s not often I put my head above the parapet with a strong industry opinion. But I’m noticing more and more agencies sharing sustainability case studies with mock-ups of their beautiful work, which include hypothetical ads – and this is something we need to be talking about.

As a messaging strategist for a purpose-driven creative agency, I spend my days writing copy for environmental campaigns that make people think and feel. I question everything I have written, triple-check guidelines, write countless substantiation lines, and often ruin my beautifully neat copy so that it complies with regulations.

So, when I see these hypothetical ‘billboards’, which show beautiful designs and catchy text, it raises a few alarms. Now, the fact that more agencies are prioritising purpose-led campaigns is amazing, but with the ASA’s strict environmental messaging guidelines, many of these beautiful billboards with cute environmental one-liners and super clean messages would never make it into the wild.

This advert by Persil was banned over its ‘misleading’ environmental claims.

I recently saw a billboard mock-up on LinkedIn that said the product offered a new way of doing things with “zero carbon” involved. It looked beaut and the messaging was slick – but there was no substantiation or nothing that gave the audience more information about the product’s wider environmental impact. Does this sweeping claim take into account the transport, the supply chain or the wider business emissions?

I saw another that mentioned “kind on the planet” – again, it looked great, but again, there was no substantiation – is it really kind to the planet? Compared to what? Is it actually benefiting our natural world, or is it just a little less damaging than its competitors?

These important questions need to be considered before we slam these cute, tidy lines on hypothetical billboards and share them with the world. Any good copywriter can write these, but what makes the sustainability world so challenging is writing engaging, creative messaging that’s transparent, credible and free of greenwash.

Now, bear with me while I get boring. Anyone in the sustainability comms world knows that the ASA has strict rules on words like ‘zero carbon’ and ‘carbon neutral’ – because often, these are not only greenwash but used as blanket terms without considering the wider impact of the product. General sweeping claims like this need substantiation.

The ASA says, “When making claims, businesses must consider the total impact of a product or service; claims can be misleading where they don’t reflect the overall impact or where they focus on one aspect of it but not another”. When it comes to adding a substantiation line… “the less prominent any qualifying information is, and the further away it is from any main claim being made, the more likely the claim will mislead consumers.” Heavy, right? But what this means is that broad claims like this need a qualifying line, and unfortunately, this often means ugly text on your beautiful, neat billboard.

We’ve had countless designs go from neat and tidy to text-heavy in order to meet regulations, and it’s vital that creative agencies are showing this reality. Because what’s the good of these campaigns if they can’t live beyond LinkedIn?

And as more and more creative agencies get into the sustainability space, with no knowledge of the regulations or obligations and with no strict stance on greenwashing, we’re only going to see this problem increase. Because the sustainability world isn’t just about making things look and sound amazing. It’s about making sure what you’re creating isn’t adding more fuel to the fire. It’s about the sublines, the substantiation lines and the disclaimers. It’s about making sure you steer brands from greenwash, that you don’t confuse or mislead customers and that you double-check and second-guess everything you create. 

Because the more of these impossible billboards we all see, the more we give brands the impression that they can get away with saying the bare minimum when it comes to their environmental credentials and that they can package up everything they do in a neat, clever line and slap this onto billboards. It mitigates the need to substantiate, to explain and to be transparent – which in an industry that’s already murky with confusion and complexity – is only elevating the problem. And as an industry, we’re better than that. 

It’s the role of an agency to understand the Green Claims Code and other environmental regulations before they mock up beautiful billboards in order to understand the level of messaging they need. Greenwashing isn’t just for the big bad guys; every bit of poorly considered creative is chipping away at the incredible work being done by genuinely purpose-driven agencies all over the world.

With billboard ads getting banned left, right and centre, it’s our role as creatives to make sure what we’re showing our clients is the reality and that the work we’re producing is strengthening the fight against greenwash, not adding to it – because at the end of the day, we’re facing the biggest crisis of our time – and it’s creatives that can help get us out of it. 

Hey there, don’t be a stranger. We would love to stay in contact with you ????

If you want to get in contact with us, especially about how we can help you communicate your environmental campaigns in a truly authentic way, then reach out to us here.


To learn more about Greenwashing and the different ways to identify it or avoid being a victim of misleading claims, read our blog ‘The New Shades Of Green Wash”.

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Written by
Bonnie Middleton