"How come the cars on television commercials can't seem to find the road?" my Aunt Sue asked me a couple of years ago.
Indeed, TV cars and trucks are found splashing through creeks, climbing rocky slopes, parked in wetlands, invading deserts and even perched on needlelike pinnacles, but rarely are they shown actually driving down a road. Chevrolet took this so far a few years ago that one of its print ads, with the title "Wetlands Conservation," proudly proclaimed, "Chevy S-10 Blazer 4-Door. It takes to wetlands like a duck to water."
TV watchers everywhere must be similarly confused with other industry commercials. If people knew no more than what they saw on TV--perhaps a fair assessment for many Americans--they might think Weyerhaeuser is the name of a wildlife refuge, DuPont's sole purpose is to protect marine mammals, and Chevron is a company that builds ocean structures for fish and roosting platforms for eagles.
Nature and environmental themes have been used for years to hawk everything from cigarettes and insecticides to phone services and insurance. But with the heightened popularity of environmental concerns in the late '80s and early '90s, companies saturated the airwaves and print media with "greener-than-thou" ads.
Given that coverage of environmental issues by mainstream media has been largely inadequate, it's likely that most news consumers will hear much less about corporate environmental records from professional journalists than from the provocative, effective ads assuring us, over and over, that corporations really do care about the environment.
While many decision-makers at news outlets will argue that there isn't more news about corporate environmental abuses because people aren't interested, the glut of environmental ads suggests otherwise. These commercials run because consumers do care about what businesses are doing to the environment.
"The last 15 years or so, when polls asked the question, 'do you consider yourself an environmentalist?,' the percentage answering 'yes' has grown tremendously," said David Soblin, senior partner at the J. Walter Thompson ad agency. Since the environment has become a "broad-based value that is important for people," he explained, "companies feel they can gain by associating themselves with it...by saying that 'we want you to know we share your values.'"
"Generally, green advertising works very well because the public is so poorly informed about environmental issues," explained John Stauber, editor of the Madison, Wisc.-based PR Watch.
So the information in the green ad campaigns does have the desired impact of changing the attitude toward a polluter or convincing the viewer that an environmental problem is being solved by industry, or that an environmental problem doesn't even really exist.
The "like-a-duck-to-water" forehead-slapper is not the only ad in which General Motors (GM), the nation's largest automaker, used the environment to help sell what is perhaps the bane of the biosphere. Bob Garfield, ad critic for Advertising Age weekly, said that the most "egregious" environmental ad he knew of was a General Motors ad in which the company congratulates America for 20 years of environmental progress.
"After spending three decades doing everything in [its] power to weaken, inhibit and delay environmental legislation," Garfield said, "for General Motors to take out ads congratulating the eco-movement is like John Wayne Gacy celebrating the International Year of the Child."
When you juxtapose all this corporate propaganda and misinformation alongside society's general lack of understanding of environmental issues, you may begin to understand why many people actually trust Rush Limbaugh more than the scientific community, and why the current Congress has been able to set course to dismantle the nation's environmental safety net.
Even the so-called "objective" environmental information our populace receives via the mainstream media is "poisoned by inconsistencies, distortions and misrepresentation of data," according to Michael Nitz and Sharon Jarvis of the University of Arizona in their recent report, Television News Coverage of the Environment: Polluted or Purified?
Citing dozens of references, Nitz and Jarvis claim that "the media underemphasize risks and overdramatize spins on disputes," which leads "the concerned public to 'throw up their hands in despair' when struggling to find ways to solve environmental problems."
While acknowledging that poor coverage of environmental issues permeates all media, Nitz and Jarvis focused their attention on TV. Not only is it where most people get their information, the researchers note, but "television is also deemed more credible than print because 'seeing is believing.'" The researchers painstakingly watched all 250 of ABC's 1994 weeknight network newscasts to analyze the quantity and quality of environmental reporting on television's highest-rated news show.
Each ABC newscast included an average of 12 full-length segments, for a total of about 3,000 for the year. Of these, only 54 (or less than two percent) addressed environment themes. (CBS aired 57 and NBC ran 61 environmental stories during the same time period.) "Clearly, the environment is not a critical issue for television news," the researchers concluded.
Nitz and Jarvis examined ABC's 54 stories closely. Among their findings:
--Nearly a quarter of the stories focused on animals.
--The largest number of sources (42 percent) were "people on the street."
--More than half the stories were episodic (tied to one event and lacking any background information).
--Technical or scientific coverage was present in only 22 percent of the stories.
--Only three of the 54 stories were lead stories (stories coming before the first commercial break).
"Television environmental news coverage is largely episodic, full of isolated dramatic vignettes of conflict and jeopardy in which animals play the starring roles," the researchers concluded.
These 54 environmental stories averaged three minutes of air time, making for a total of about 160 minutes of environmental stories a year on the ABC network newscast. And very little if any of this time is devoted to the environmental records of the kinds of corporations that are often sponsors of newscasts, a check of the Vanderbilt University television news archives suggests.
Millions for Greenwashing
Of four major corporations in different industries that have major impacts on the environment--DuPont, Chevron, Weyerhaeuser and GM--none was featured in any environmental reporting on the three nightly evening network newscasts in 1994, according to the Vanderbilt abstracts.
Although network news showed no interest in these companies' environmental records, the companies must believe it's a subject people care about. Each of these companies has run ad campaigns that tout the corporation's eco-friendly attitudes.
The fact that most of the information TV viewers receive on corporate environmental records comes from ads, not news, doesn't surprise PR Watch's John Stauber. "There is absolutely a connection," Stauber said, "between the millions and millions of dollars in greenwashing ads spent on network TV, especially around news programs, and the failure of network TV news programs to air good educational, hard-hitting, investigative environmental reporting."
"Not to say that news media ignores us," said Jim Hendon, media relations representative for Chevron, "but our ads tell a story that wouldn't get told otherwise about our company's environmental concerns. Oil companies can't rely on media, so we do it through this [ad] campaign."
And tell their stories they do. During 1994, advertising analysts at LNA/Mediawatch Multi-Media Service report that these same four companies together spent nearly $915 million on TV advertising alone. While the bulk of this advertising came from GM, each corporation spent enough money to get its point across:
DUPONT: The famous (or infamous) "applause" or "seal-clapping" ad is "one of the most effective ads we've ever run," said Jamie Murray, director of DuPont's Corporate Brands. "It increased DuPont's favorability as a good citizen--we moved the needle."
The ad opens with visuals of the ocean with an oil tanker in the background. Narration: "Recently DuPont announced that its energy unit would pioneer the use of new double-hulled oil tankers in order to safeguard the environment." Seals frolic and dolphins leap as the theme from Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" plays in the background. Narration: "The response has been overwhelmingly positive."
"Seals are borrowed interest to entertain," Murray admitted, "but are relevant because they directly benefited from our actions." Back in 1989, when the ad was produced, Murray said, DuPont was looking for a way to "communicate the fact that it does care for the environment."
But while the seals--and unwary viewers--may have been happy about the double-hulled tankers, they might have been less enthusiastic if they were aware that DuPont was named by the EPA in 1994 as far and away the largest emitter of toxic waste, releasing 239.6 million pounds into the environment in 1992 (Denver Post, 4/20/94). Or that, in 1994, DuPont agreed to pay a $1 million fine for distributing contaminated pesticide (Palm Beach Post, 10/7/94).
CHEVRON: Its "People Do" ads have been airing for 10 years, making them the longest-running environmental ad campaign ever, according to media relations rep Jim Hendon. The ads are very similar: Each portrays some kind of environmental project, like wooden platforms on high-voltage towers to prevent eagles from electrocuting themselves. Then it asks a question--e.g., "Do people really reach that high to protect a natural wonder?" The answer is always the same: "People Do"--under the Chevron logo.
"Certainly we wanted to correct public misperceptions," Hendon said. "If corporations don't tell their story, you can't expect the public to know what companies are doing or not doing." The "People Do" ads won an Effie Award in 1990 for "proven effectiveness in influencing the public," he proclaimed. "We tried to find out [through polling] if the ads changed the general public perception of Chevron. What we've learned is that in the areas where we've run the ads, the company tends to lead other oil companies in environmental reputation."
If newscasts were regularly covering Chevron's environmental record, however, the "People Do" ads might not be so effective--if people knew, for instance, that Chevron is an industry leader in promoting offshore drilling, or that it has begun oil exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, or that it has been linked by the EPA to more than 200 toxic Superfund sites. People concerned about corporate environmental records might also be interested to know that there is a nationwide boycott called against Chevron for its support of "wise use" anti-environmental groups; the company in 1992 gave more than $1.3 million to such organizations (Environmental Action, 6/22/94).
WEYERHAEUSER: One of its many spot commercials depicts an underwater scene, with fish swimming around a scientist in a lab coat. Narration: "Weyerhaeuser is working with scientists and environmental groups to study problems faced by fish in their natural state. As you can see, we're taking it very seriously." Weyerhaeuser also ran several recycling ads in the past few years on shows such as Rush Limbaugh and Geraldo.
Montye Male, a spokesperson for Weyerhaeuser, referred to these ads as "legacy advertising," intended to promote the company's image over the long haul. Though Weyerhaeuser is one of the world's leading forest-products companies, its commercials "don't talk much about trees," Male explained, "because even though we are replanting trees, our research told us that people aren't interested in data."
To its credit, the company has had an active recycling program for some years and, after much urging from government agencies and the public, has developed some "habitat conservation" and "habitat management plans." In 1994, however, Weyerhaeuser also reaffirmed its commitment to clear-cut timbering, and--despite its claims that it takes the problems faced by fish "seriously"--the company resisted pleas to leave tree buffers around streams to protect salmon populations (Christian Science Monitor, 6/30/94).
And when has anyone on television talked about Weyerhaeuser's corporate record? The nation's largest private landholder and a long-time fixture in the Northwest, Weyerhaeuser now owns even more land in the Southeast. Many environmentalists claim that the company financed this move by over-exploiting timber in the Northwest and exporting it overseas for large amounts of cash.
GM: Despite repeated requests, GM declined to discuss its environmental advertising campaign. Perhaps it's because the company's advertising (the carmaker spent $1.4 billion on all forms of advertising in 1994, dwarfing the spending of the other three companies combined) has been frequently criticized for its environmental pretensions.
GM's ads vary from the ubiquitous Chevy truck blowing sand dunes apart (with the disclaimer in small print: "tread lightly on public and private land") to corporate ads in conjunction with the likes of Ducks Unlimited and the Nature Conservancy that laud GM's environmental commitment.
Meanwhile, the group Earth Day 2000 named GM as one of its top 10 "Don't Be Fooled" greenwashers for 1994. It cited a World Resource Institute stat that cars and trucks account for nearly 14 percent of all carbon dioxide emissions worldwide, and noted that GM has "fought against measures to increase automotive fuel economy, the greatest single step towards curbing global warming." While the company hawks its fuel-economy model Geo with the promise to plant a tree for every Geo sold, Justin Lowe of Earth Island Institute estimated that GM would need to plant 734 trees to compensate for the additional C02 produced in the ten-year lifetime of just one Geo.
While some of the specific green claims made in these companies' ads may be true, the amount of money they spend on advertising dwarfs the amount any of them gives to environmental causes. (One of Chevron's "People Do" ads touted a marsh that the company had created without mentioning that it was forced to create the wetland as part of a settlement for Clean Water Act violations.) The fact is that these corporations claim concern for the environment while actually spending considerable money lobbying against environmental regulation.
Chevron's "People Do" series of ads is certainly educational--some are perhaps even touching. They encourage habitat conservation and love of nature, possibly even help instill an environmental ethic. But if they help promote a fossil-fuel-dependent nation, and lull us into a "not-to-worry, industry-has-everything-under-control" attitude, then the environmental cost is not worth the environmental-education benefit.
That's because the ultimate aim of these ads is to encourage our society, which is already addicted to countless environmentally harmful products and lifestyles, to simply consume more--guilt-free.
"It's doing what the companies want," explained Stauber, "which is to forestall any sort of action to address environmental problems relative to their products. Polluters are winning the battle of environmental education," he concluded. "The public as a whole is getting environmentally dumber."
Jay Letto is an environmental writer and consultant based in White Salmon, Wash.