On the Alert for Misleading Ads

Submitted by: Joan MacKenzie 01/09/2012

A Blog about Energy and the Environment - Kevin Tuerff’s message is clear: Companies should not be making false claims about how green their products are to gain an incremental improvement in market share. Four years ago, he dreamed up the Greenwashing Index, a host site where consumers post, rate and discuss environmental advertising. He says the site has logged 55,000 repeat visitors.

November 16, 2011

By Glenn Swain

Speaking this month at the GoGreen conference in Phoenix, Mr. Tuerff, the co-founder of the marketing agency EnviroMedia, casts himself as an ethical guardian at the gates of green advertising. Four years ago, he dreamed up the Greenwashing Index, a host site where consumers post, rate and discuss environmental advertising. He says the site has logged 55,000 repeat visitors.

Kevin Tuerff, founder of the Greenwashing Index, at a conference in Phoenix on Tuesday.

The term “greenwashing” was coined by the New York environmentalist Jay Westervelt in a 1986 essay on the hotel industry’s recommendation that guests reuse their towels rather than demand fresh ones each day to help the environment. The index is a way for consumers to identify companies that are honestly trying to be better environmental stewards rather than simply trying to save money or making cosmetic changes that make no difference for the environment at all.

The Greenwashing Index is based on five criteria developed with the University of Oregon: Does the ad mislead with words; does it mislead with visuals or graphics; does it make vague claims or claims that are seemingly not provable; does it overstate or exaggerate how green a company’s product or service is; and does the ad leave out or mask important information to make the green claim sound better?

Consumers rate each ad on a scale of 1 to 5. A rating of 1 means the ad is authentic, a 3 rating suggests that the ad is suspect, and a 5 rating means that the ad’s claims are clearly bogus.

“The challenges we have in the environment are so daunting, especially with climate change,” Mr. Tuerff said. When companies deceive the consumer, he added, it makes decision-making harder.

Under the Bush administration, the Federal Trade Commission set out to update its green guidelines for marketing. Some were at least 20 years old, written when the issues were what compostable and biodegradable meant. Last year, the commission published a draft for public comment and promised new standards would be released in the summer of 2011. They have yet to be released; in the interim, Mr. Tuerff said, the index can serve as a tool for the public.

“We knew the government would be slow, and we wanted to educate consumers about the issue,” he said. “We’re trying to empower consumers to learn to dig a little deeper than the 30-second ad and find out what a company really has intended. The site is a way to hold them accountable.”

During the conference, Mr. Tuerff displayed General Electric, Intel and Toyota Prius television ads and asked the crowd for a show of hands on whether they thought each one was genuine, suspect or bogus.

A 2005 G.E. Ecoimagination ad called “Model Miners” — Mr. Tuerff calls it the “sexy coal miners” ad — brought laughter from the audience and suggested how far a company might go to deliver its message. The ad (at the top of this post) shows muscled men and scantily clad women descending into a dark coal mine with shovels and sledgehammers. Dripping with sweat, the models show off their attractive physiques and cast flirty glances as the Tennessee Ernie Ford classic “Sixteen Tons” plays in the background. “Harnessing the power of coal is looking more beautiful every day,” the ad declares.

To Mr. Tuerff, the basics of good green advertising are showing authenticity, having a source for your claims so they can be verified and getting a third party to back up your claims.

Disingenuous green advertising is a worldwide phenomenon, he noted. He said that Britain has imposed standards and that companies there were fined for making false green claims.

When the F.T.C. issues the new green marketing guidelines in the United States, he said, fines could be warranted for companies making false or misleading green claims — just as the commission recently fined Reebok $25 million over an ad campaign claiming that its toning shoes could strengthen a wearer’s buttocks, legs and thighs. The penalty went toward consumer refunds.

In the meantime, Mr. Tuerff will continue to take his message on the road. Next week, he flies to Durban, South Africa, in advance of the United Nations Climate Change Conference, the fifth-consecutive year he has gone as a business delegate.