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The advertising sector and Big Oil — happy bedfellows

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By Victoria Harvey

· 5 min read

We are at a time when everyone, from lawyers to museums to sporting events, is disengaging with big oil and gas, yet the UK advertising industry continues to work with, and pitch for new business, from the sector. Last month, Shell put their global media account up for review, which is worth around £140 million. Most of the main UK ad agencies are pitching for it. 

Who works for who?

So how many UK agencies are still working with fossil fuel clients and benefitting from the revenue that brings? Aside from a few ethical smaller ones, nearly all of the main UK holding groups and agencies continue to service oil and gas clients. It’s really difficult to know which clients an agency has because an actual client roster — a full breakdown of a client portfolio — is absent from nearly all websites. The industry’s main publication, Campaign Magazine, creates an annual report of the top agencies ranked by metrics such as revenue and creativity. However, there is no information on how much of this revenue is from oil and gas money. Calls for them to make a client roster mandatory fall on deaf ears. I know because I’ve been asking for it for three years. Fortunately, Clean Creatives publish a full breakdown of agencies engaging with oil and gas clients, so we can see who the worst offenders are.


But does advertising oil and gas actually increase the sales of fossil fuels? It’s a question and counter-argument I hear regularly based on the fact that advertising doesn’t alter our consumption of say, household gas or petrol for our car. Advertising does of course increase sales and consumption in general,  but when it comes to advertising fossil fuels, the more dangerous function of perceptions is evoked. Whilst they can no longer get away with greenwashing due to the Advertising Standards Authority’s recently tightened-up rules, advertising allows the perceived values of oil and gas to bleed into our psyche and confirm social norms. Research has shown that just associating a brand with green colours can influence people’s perceptions of that brand. Regular exposure to climate-friendly looking adverts doesn’t have to make any claims. The unconscious theme of the brand value is affirmed and it’s been shown that consumers are more comfortable interacting with brands because of it. 

Being exposed to compelling creative work leads us to believe that the oil and gas industry must be okay, that they are working towards something good, and that we need not worry because they are ‘part of the solution’. The spending on advertising and PR from big oil and gas drowns out that of the environmental movement sector many times over. Whilst green-washing is tightly controlled, we are still being ad-washed into believing that oil and gas are part of the transition to a more sustainable world.

Not part of the transition

But they’re not part of the transition. Oil and gas account for 90% of greenhouse gas emissions, a commonly known fact that’s hard to ignore. According to the World Benchmarking Alliance, almost no oil and gas companies are on track to meet climate-aligned targets and Shell itself has back peddled on its already meagre climate pledges. Oil and gas companies are being taken to court all over the world. 

Delay and denial

How much longer can the advertising industry continue down the path of delay and denial? When looking to the industry trade bodies for guidance, ethics are sadly lacking. They continually argue that adverts for oil and gas don’t actually increase consumption and that the oil and gas companies themselves are “essential businesses to the functioning of our economy and society”. 

However, pressure from activist groups is mounting, and disruptions at awards events, such as Cannes Lions, are calling out the worst offenders. Other groups such as Badvertising do a great job of formally reporting misleading adverts when they appear. Purpose Disruptors are working to change the industry from the inside. My research on employee sentiment on the topic shows a groundswell of employees and creatives that all want to see their agency move away from these planet-wrecking clients.

Time for change

The UN Emissions Gap report states plainly that the world has no credible pathway to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees. The UK government is no longer on track to meet its emissions reduction targets by 2035. This past month of July 2023 we’ve experienced the hottest days on record and this week southern Europe is in the grips of horrific wildfires.

It’s clearly now unconscionable that Ad Land continues to work with oil and gas clients, let alone pitch for new work with them. Agencies that continue to take money from these clients will no doubt be looked at in the same way we perceive tobacco advertising — as deeply unethical. Unfortunately, the consequences in this scenario are much worse. If the whole of the UK advertising industry continues to use its creative talent to legitimise these oil and gas companies, it’s on the wrong side of history, and for anyone that has a conscience, that’s a deeply uncomfortable place to be.

Take action

If you… see an advert in your town or city that you think is not greenwashing but climate-inappropriate, report it to Ad Free Cities

If you… see an advert you think is greenwashing, report it to the Advertising Standards Authority

If you… have a company and want to employ an ad agency with a clean roster, check the Clean Creatives clean list 

If you… work in advertising and want to do more, check Purpose Disruptors

If you… want more information in general about bad adverts, check Badvertising

If you… want to do more in general on this issue, check The Climate Majority

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About the author

Victoria Harvey is co-founder of Clima. She works as an advisor to the advertising and production sector on low carbon methodologies as well as working on a PhD at UEA on climate change and advertising.

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