New study: Ads for cars, flights keep transport hooked on oil

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New analysis shows how European airline and car companies use advertising to evade their climate responsibilities by either exaggerating their corporate response to the climate crisis or completely ignoring the damage their products cause. The study Words vs. Actions, the truth behind the advertising of the car and airline industries by environmental research group DeSmog was commissioned by Greenpeace Netherlands.

Analysis of a year’s worth of Facebook and Instagram advertising content from a sample of ten European airlines and car makers, including Peugeot, FIAT, Air France and Lufthansa, suggests that the companies are greenwashing, in other words presenting a deceptively environmentally friendly image. The 864 car advertisements and 263 airline advertisements analysed were all targeting audiences in Europe and drawn from the Facebook Ad Library. 

Transport accounts for two thirds of the oil used in the EU, almost all of which is imported. The largest source of the EU’s oil imports is Russia, providing 27% of the EU’s imported oil in 2021, worth over €200 million per day. Environmental and human rights groups have warned that the EU’s imports of oil and other fuels from Russia are effectively funding the invasion of Ukraine.

Silvia Pastorelli, Greenpeace EU climate campaigner, said: “Marketing strategies are helping car and airline companies in Europe sell products that burn vast amounts of oil, worsening the climate crisis and fueling the war in Ukraine. The last IPCC report identifies misleading narratives as an obstacle to climate action and scientists have urged ad agencies to ditch fossil fuel clients. We need a new EU law to stop ads and sponsorships by the companies that are working to keep Europe hooked on oil.”

In Europe, more than 30 organisations, including Greenpeace, are supporting a campaign to legally end fossil advertising and sponsorship in the EU, much like the long-established directive banning tobacco sponsorships and advertisements. If the campaign collects one million verified signatures in a year, the European Commission is obliged to respond to the proposal. 

The research shows that the car industry’s advertising of electric and hybrid vehicles is way out of proportion to their European sales of those cars, in some cases up to five times higher. Airlines seem to be pursuing a very different approach, with almost every company analysed placing little or no emphasis on supposed solutions to their oil use and greenhouse gas emissions. Instead, airline content focuses overwhelmingly on low-cost flights, deals and promotions, which together accounted for 66% of all their advertisements. 

Rachel Sherrington, Lead Researcher for DeSmog, said: “Time and time again we see polluting industries giving the impression in their advertising that they are doing more on climate change than they are, or worse still ignoring the climate crisis. The transport industry is no exception.”

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Silvia Pastorelli, added: “Even in the face of appalling environmental consequences and humanitarian suffering, car companies are committed to selling as many oil-burning cars as they can, for as long as they can, while airlines are grossly evading their climate commitments and leaning on advertising to convert a luxury item into a fabricated necessity. The oil industry, as well as air and road transportation powered by it, are driven by profit, not morals. PR agencies that help them disguise the nature of their business are not just complicit, they are a crucial actor in one of the world’s most unethical business schemes.”  

In the EU, fuel burned by transport as a whole contributed 25% of greenhouse gas emissions in 2018. Cars alone were responsible for 11% of total EU emissions in 2018, and aviation for 3.5% of total emissions. To bring the sector in line with the 1.5°C goal, the EU and European governments must reduce and phase out fossil fuel powered transport and boost rail and public transport.

Read the full press release here.

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