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In light of Iceland’s banned ad: Greenwashing and political advertising

Wednesday November 14, 2018 at 11:57am

Helen Hart, Regulatory Affairs Manager, IPM

There has been quite a lot of traditional and social media furore about Clearcast’s decision to refuse to clear Iceland’s Christmas television advertisement for broadcast. Many of our members do not carry out television or radio activity, but for broadcast advertising, pre-clearance is required by Clearcast. Clearcast refused to clear the ad in this case, saying that it breached the rules on political advertising as it dealt with the issue of palm oil. 

I thought it might be helpful to discuss a couple of themes arising out of the Iceland ‘incident,’ exploring what counts as a political advertisement, why are they not permitted and ‘greenwashing’ in advertising.

Political advertising

Political advertising is dealt with differently to other forms of advertising and is defined in section 7 of the CAP Code as:

“Claims in marketing communications, whenever published or distributed, whose principal function is to influence voters in a local, regional, national or international election or referendum.”

Non-broadcast political advertising is exempt from regulation under the CAP Code. Somewhat confusingly, marketing communications by central or local government are treated as being distinct from those concerning party policy and are covered.

Broadcast political advertising is banned under the Communications Act 2003. Instead, parties are given airtime via party-political broadcasts, which are not classified as advertising. Ofcom regulates this area rather than the ASA. An advertisement contravenes the prohibition on political advertising if it is inserted by or on behalf of a body whose objects are of a political nature.

One of the main reasons political advertising is exempt from the CAP Code is the fact that political advertisements tend to run for short time frames during election campaigns. Therefore, complaints subject to ASA investigation would be ruled upon after an election has taken place.

In 1998, the ASA referred the matter to the Neill Committee on Standards in Public Life. The Neill Committee recommended that political parties should establish a code of best practice in partnership with the advertising industry. The report was presented to Parliament in July 1999. The Electoral Commission carried out a consultation in 2003 about the regulation of electoral advertising. It concluded that the ASA and CAP should not be responsible for regulating electoral advertising and the position has not changed since.

However, the ASA will intervene if an advertisement by a public body crosses the line of acceptability. In 2016, the ASA ruled on a poster campaign by Nottingham City Council about beggars. The ASA ruled that the posters reinforced negative stereotypes of people and were likely to cause serious or widespread offence. The ASA has also ruled on misleading claims by local and central government, including a teaching advertisement, Green Deal Initiative advertisements and an advertisement on a consultation for speed limits in Brighton & Hove.


The ASA has often had cause to uphold complaints about environmental claims in advertising, that cannot be substantiated – termed ‘Greenwashing.’ It is easy to see why it is tempting to talk-up environmental performance of products, the reduction of use of plastic, or in this case, palm oil, for marketing purposes. Protecting the environment never ceases to be a hot topic and, at the moment, reducing the use of plastic is the big theme. In addition, many organisations want to demonstrate their environmental credentials as part of their corporate social responsibility objectives.

As well as this, the Companies Act 2006 includes a duty on company directors to promote the success of the company having regard, among other matters, to the impact of operations on the community and the environment.

As mentioned, the ASA has investigated and upheld many complaints against advertisers who have made unsubstantiated environmental claims.  Most arise in the energy, motoring and airline sectors, as well as in relation to organic food. The CAP Code has a dedicated section on environmental claims, which requires marketers to:

  • Explain the basis of environmental claims.
  • Qualify claims where necessary.
  • Acknowledge whether informed debate exists.
  • Unless stated otherwise, use a ‘cradle to grave’ assessment when considering a product’s environmental impact and make clear the limits of the life cycle.
  • Hold robust evidence for claims and comparisons.
  • Avoid misleading consumers by using confusing or pseudo-scientific claims.

The ASA and CAP have issued guidance on green claims in advertising and ensuring your environmental claims are more than just hot air. There is also a help-note about organic food claims and marketers should be aware of DEFRA’s Green Claims Code.

Advertisers found guilty of greenwashing can find their credibility damaged and come under fire from pressure groups. In the ‘new’ world of social media, the ensuing Twitter storm can be as damaging as negative coverage in the traditional media.

As well as upheld ASA complaints, it is also worth mentioning that marketers can fall foul of the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008, which impose a duty on traders to trader fairly, thereby ensuring that marketing is not misleading.

Our key points of advice for members would be:

  • Get your facts right and do not exaggerate the environmental benefits of a product.
  • Back up your claims with documentary evidence.
  • Do not present claims as being universally accepted if the science is developing.
  • Do not use terms that are not generally understood by readers.
  • Avoid sweeping terms such as ‘environmentally friendly’ or ‘wholly biodegradable.’  It is unlikely that you can prove a product as no adverse environmental impact.
  • If you say something is 'locally' produced it means exactly that. Bringing goods from one end of the UK to the other is not 'local.'
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