Advertisments awash with deception

What to know and how to consume media as the football season approaches

Ethan Uslabar, Editor - Arts & Entertainment

The term greenwashing was coined in the late ‘80s as numerous companies were found to be overplaying the significance of their endeavors ostensibly to save the environment.

Sometimes, companies will advertise their initiatives, be it social, environmental or what have you because it’s important to them and aligns with their values and objectives. Other times, a company has certain revenue goals or is trying to find a connection to a certain audience.

“Sometimes it’s done in a way that creates the perception that the actions they’re taking are fully supportive of whatever initiative it happens to be, when in fact if you dig more deeply into their company history, the evidence may not reveal a solid form of support,” Melissa Bublitz, associate professor of marketing at the UW Oshkosh, said. “The hard part is that it’s not an either-or. It’s often a scale.”

Some companies that embark on these initiatives will do so because sustainability efforts can be accompanied by cost savings, good press and can attract talent to their company. There may be people in the company who are passionate about it, but there may also be others who couldn’t be bothered either way.

Greenwashing might occur when a brand spends more on marketing their so-called eco-friendly brand than on changing to more sustainable practices or donating to environmental organizations. Huge companies, notably Chevron and DuPont, would masquerade as eco-friendly brands, all the while doing little more than the federally mandated minimum and maintaining their status as huge polluters.

Companies have also been known to brand the minimum requirement as something laudable for quite some time. Chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs, a chemical once found in common household aerosols, were banned in 1996 as they deplete the ozone layer. Long after they were banned, however, companies that produced aerosols free of CFCs labeled their products as though they were independently making the decision to rid their products of the chemical.

Corporate America’s focus on allegedly sustainable products and eco-friendliness isn’t without good reason. According to a 2019 report by Edelman, 71% of respondents said they consider a brand’s environmental impact when purchasing a product. Many companies know this, and while some are happy to change their practices to please their buyers, others see a purchasing motivator they can easily exploit.

Take, for example, our dearly beloved coffee industry. No-straw lids, metal, paper or hard, reusable straws, reusable cups and the like are all great, but they obscure the greater environmental detriment the coffee industry is.

Millions of acres of deforestation, chemical and fertilizer runoff polluting waterways, and the carbon irrevocably pumped into the atmosphere in the transportation process are just a few of the aspects of environmental impact the coffee trade has. These are vastly more complex than the issue of plastic packaging. But behold the straw-free lid, and suddenly the company is lauded for their environmentally conscious position.

The grift has evolved

The grift that greenwashing was built upon has evolved and branched out to encompass more than just environmental issues. Now, by latching onto social movements, some brands have found a loophole for creating a long-term marketing strategy in the age of Twitter, Instagram, 24/7 news updates and everything ephemeral.

This new wave of branding that revolves around social good may be called “woke-washing,” being born out of the term greenwashing.

Woke-washing has had similar successes and failures. Companies practicing woke-washing often co-opt social movements in order to appeal to younger demographics who are concerned with those issues. While it’s often an effective technique for a brand to communicate their beliefs, it can backfire just as easily which is just what happened when a Pepsi ad from 2017 featured the laughable imagery of Kendall Jenner bringing America into a post-race society simply by handing a police officer a can of the soda.

Corporate behemoths promoting these social movements rights comes off as objectively good, at least initially. But what isn’t automatically clear to consumers is whether a corporations actions and values align with their ads on rainbow or pink backing; it’s not immediately clear to consumers whether a brand is promoting a movement, or simply leeching off of it.

“It can be hard when you get excited about a good product,” Alicia Johnson, director of the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh’s Women’s Center, said. “I have a young niece, and when I buy clothes for her it’s nice to not only have the options of only pink and only princesses, but to have things that affirm her intellect and the power that she has.”

What can consumers do?

The popularity of marketing to groups that were once peripheral is evidence of a greater shift in the culture of buyers and sellers, so is there reason to be critical? And how can a consumer be critical of the message a brand is selling?

“One way I try to remain critical is by looking at the companies putting out those products and seeing what their policies are,” Johnson said. “Do they have nondiscrimination policies that are inclusive of gender identity and gender expression? Do they have sexual harassment issues? How do they address claims of sexual harassment? How do they work to prevent discrimination in their company culture?”

Bublitz noted the difference between companies that are really dedicated to a cause, and companies that aren’t as dedicated.

“You should be able to go to that company’s website, and they should have information about whatever they’re making a claim about,” Bublitz said. “If you only see it in an ad, or on a package, and you go to their website and it doesn’t appear to be a part of their company’s core values, I think that’s a good place to start questioning their real motives.”

Woke-washing may be losing steam, at least in the eyes of consumers.
According to the Edelman report, 56% of respondents think that brands are using social issues to brand, market and sell more of their products. All talk and no action from brands on these issues can have harmful side effects for every party involved with the interaction. In the age of cancel culture, Twitter and everything online, brands are beginning to realize the risk they take when making such claims.

“Companies need to think carefully about these kinds of decisions,” Bublitz said. “If they step out and say, ‘We’re in support of this issue,’ then other actions they take are going to be analyzed.”

While advertisements that are awash with false claims can be detrimental to the buyer, the groups or causes they claim to support and the company’s own reputation, honest advertisements can lead to benefits for everyone involved.

“I think it’s good that consumers are getting more critical of and evaluating these messages,” Bublitz said. “If I’m interested in a product, and it’s better for the environment, and the company makes a little more money because they saved on packaging or something, well, that’s good. Because we all win. The company wins because they’re making more money, the environment wins because it’s being taken into consideration, and I win because I get to spend money on the product I want to buy and feel good about it.”