In the 1960s, Canadians loved Esso’s “Put a Tiger in Your Tank” advertising campaign so much that they attached colorful “tiger tails” to their gas tank lids. The plush orange and black pennant flapped proudly behind Grandpa’s Pontiac as he spit exhaust and promoted his favorite hydrocarbon.
But oil industry marketing may soon be as threatened as tigers in the wild. Growing awareness of the dangers of fossil fuels – and the role of marketing in stimulating demand when it is expected to decline – is changing attitudes towards the promotion of the oil industry. At the end of the summer, France led the way by announcing a ban on advertising for fossil fuels such as oil, coal and carbons containing hydrogen. Sanctions include fines ranging from €20,000 to €100,000, with these amounts doubling in the event of a repeat offence.
Even The Drum, a UK-based web publisher serving the marketing industry, sees the writing on the wall. Given that global oil giants nonetheless continue to ramp up production, The Drum reports, “it’s no surprise, then, that litigation and regulatory interest is erupting around fossil fuel advertising around the world.”
Activist organizations have banded together to demand that Europe ban fossil fuel advertisements. As the BanFossilFuelAds.org campaign website points out, “Through their misleading advertising and sponsorships, fossil fuel companies are gaining the social acceptance and political access they need to block climate action and continue their activities as usual”.
The French law, which will come into force next year, stems from the 2021 climate legislation which aims to reduce energy consumption and promote renewable sources. But Greenpeace and other advocates say the ban doesn’t go far enough. “You will read everywhere that advertising for fossil fuels is now banned, but that is not true,” Greenpeace France said in a statement. “Advertising for gas can continue, patronage, sponsorship, institutional communication and financial advertising on fossil products remain authorized.”
Still, advertising bans appear to be emerging as an effective tool to restrict anti-social activity, particularly at the local level. Last year, Amsterdam became the first city in the world to ban fossil fuel advertising. In September, the Dutch city of Haarlem banned advertisements in public spaces (e.g. buses, shelters) not only for fossil fuels, but also for cars, holiday flights and meat products. The meat industry has accused Haarlem advisers of “going too far in telling people what is best for them”. But a 2021 study from the University of Illinois found that when you include production, transportation and fertilizers, the agriculture industry accounts for 35% of all global emissions – and meat production generates more of the half of that total.
Canada could be next. In June, a powerful coalition of medical associations representing 700,000 medical professionals signed an open letter calling on Ottawa to ban advertising for fossil fuels, gas utilities and gasoline vehicles. “Climate change is a public health crisis,” said Joe Vipond, president of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE), which sent the letter. A recent Health Canada report found that air pollution from fossil fuels kills between 15,000 and 34,000 Canadians each year, while children who live in homes with gas stoves are at a 24 to 42% higher to develop asthma.
In September, CAPE struck again by filing a greenwashing complaint with the federal Competition Bureau against the natural gas industry. The complaint concerns claims by the Canadian Gas Association that portray gas as a clean, affordable and sustainable choice.
The complaint claims that the carbon emissions from natural gas are comparable to those from fossil fuels such as coal and that the production of natural gas pollutes the air and water. It also indicates that gas appliances cause indoor air pollution and pose a serious health risk. The Competition Bureau may seem like an unlikely forum for seeking environmental justice, but just days before CAPE’s complaint was filed, the board hosted a seminar on “the role of competition enforcement in transition to a greener economy”.
Why have Canadian doctors become climate hawks? Leah Temper, director of CAPE’s ad ban campaign, said the medical community “has become more explicit about identifying fossil fuels as a health issue and that they need to be phased out for the good of our health and the planet.”