‘Ban advertising of fossil fuels? Not very useful ‘

A European Citizens’ Initiative calls for a ban on fossil fuel advertising. Not everyone thinks it makes sense. ‘A ban alone will never lead to tangible results,’ says marketing professor Patrick De Pelsmacker (UAntwerpen). ‘

For more than twenty years, it has been forbidden in Belgium to advertise tobacco for reasons of public health. There is also a growing awareness that CO2 emissions2 harms health. The European Union is behind a number of climate goals. But the biggest fossil pollutants are still allowed to advertise their products. A European citizens’ initiative from 36 climate and anti-advertising organizations finds this untenable. Among them are names like Greenpeace, WWF, Badvertisers and Reclame Fossilvrij.

Under the name Ban Fossil Fuel Ads, they demand a ban on advertising for the fossil fuel industry and cars, planes and cruise ships running on fossil fuels. Greenpeace spokesman Joeri Thijs: ‘We call for a ban on all advertising and sponsorship of companies active in the fossil fuel industry, such as Shell and TotalEnergies, and of companies promoting fossil fuels, such as Ryanair and Ford.’

The proposed ban is similar to the tobacco ban: name and logo no longer appear anywhere except at direct points of sale. Not in public transport, not on the street, not at events, not on social media, not in newspapers.

Flanking measures

In addition to the ban on tobacco advertising, there is already a ban on gambling advertising on the way. There are also age restrictions for alcohol advertising and ethical restrictions for car advertising, which prohibit e.g. betting on ‘masculinity’. Are these prohibitions and restrictions effective? ‘Yes and no’, says marketing professor Patrick De Pelsmacker (UAntwerpen). “For fifty years there have been campaigns to get people to stop smoking, and for thirty years it has not been allowed to advertise. Still, you did not see a spectacular drop in smoking behavior. Nor do road safety or drink-driving campaigns lead to a drastic drop in traffic numbers. ‘

Therefore, De Pelsmacker puts the effect of a ban on fossil advertising in perspective. “Getting rid of fossil fuels requires very different interventions than getting rid of cigarettes. Fossil fuels are woven into our entire energy and mobility system, while smoking is much more individual. ‘ In the long run, the marketing teacher does not think that a ban on advertising is wrong, ‘because we have to gradually build a new normal, and that awareness is very important. But a ban alone will never lead to tangible results’, says De Pelsmacker. ‘At the same time, the government must implement accompanying measures: Stimulation of renewable energy sources through excise duties and price increases on fossil fuels on the one hand and subsidies and campaigns for fossil-free fuels on the other.’

‘Getting rid of fossil fuels requires much more intervention than getting rid of cigarettes’

Patrick De Pelsmacker, Professor of Marketing (UA)

Trapped in fossil system

The International Energy Agency (IEA) is clear: To limit global warming to two degrees Celsius, which is enshrined in the Paris climate agreement, the industrialized countries must have a completely fossil-free energy system by 2035. “It’s in twelve years,” emphasizes Joeri Thijs from Greenpeace. “In such a context, it is insane to allow advertising for companies that are openly committed to fossil fuels until 2030 and even beyond. It is fighting the climate battle with our arms tied behind our backs. ‘

According to Thijs, a ban on advertising affects companies’ business model. ‘An advertising ban would be a great incentive for companies to move quickly away from polluting products,’ says Thijs. ‘We are not pointing the finger at the consumer by saying:’ You must no longer drive a fossil car tomorrow. ‘ Consumers are trapped in a fossil fuel system. By bombarding them with such propaganda, companies are trying to keep them in that system. ‘

‘Allowing advertising for fossil fuels takes the climate fight with its arms tied behind its back’

Joeri Thijs, Greenpeace spokesman

Joeri Thijs, Greenpeace spokesman

The Pelsmacker also keeps the consumer out of it. “It is not fair to place the responsibility for the climate problem on the people. Some people can not get to work without a car. One cannot expect the impossible from them if the public does not provide efficient public transport. Therefore, advertising bans should not be a priority in efforts to encourage people to live more sustainably. Such a campaign is far too complicated for it to have a direct effect on people. “


Yet there is already a climate law in France that bans ‘pure’ fossil advertising. The oil company Shell, for example, is not allowed to advertise for oil. “But that law affects very few commercials,” says Joeri Thijs. Shell and TotalEnergies virtually no longer advertise their nuclear or gas products, which still make up 85 to 90 percent of their business. Based on their ads, one would think that they have become renewable energy companies. ” Thijs calls such a misleading advertisement greenwashing: companies pretend to be greener than they really are. That is also why a ban on advertising is crucial for him. ‘It’s a conscious strategy for those companies,’ says Thijs. ‘By creating an image in misleading advertisements that they are fully committed to the energy transition, they slow down climate efforts and legislation. It was the same with tobacco. The tobacco companies ‘propaganda lied about the health impact, which meant that it took twenty to thirty years before the tobacco was condemned.’

Advertising bans should not be a priority in efforts to encourage people to live more sustainably

Patrick De Pelsmacker, Professor of Marketing (UA)

Patrick De Pelsmacker, Professor of Marketing (UA)

Is an advertising ban the next step, or is there mainly a lack of control and regulation? Patrick De Pelsmacker worked for JEP, the jury for ethical practice in advertising, for many years. That jury can ban advertisements if it believes they violate ethical rules. “An advertisement in which a company offers a sustainable fund of 10 million euros, while the other billions it earns are not invested sustainably, we consider unethical,” says De Pelsmacker. “But JEP is an addition to the legislation and only works reactively: someone has to lodge a complaint first. JEP cannot take the initiative itself. There is no system of preventive control. Nor is it a matter of course: tens of thousands of ads pass through every year. ‘


Preventing advertising does not seem so simple. “There is also a reluctance to fall into censorship if, for example, you give JEP the power to decide which commercials people should not see,” says De Pelsmacker. Joeri Thijs has also noted this: ‘In Belgian politics, a number of resolutions are being drafted to put the advertising ban on the political agenda. But there are still quite a few cold feet in the liberal corner. They always return to the argument of freedom of speech. But advertising does not express an opinion, it encourages consumption. ‘

Shell and TotalEnergies virtually no longer advertise their nuclear or gas products, which still make up 85 to 90 percent of their business.

Joeri Thijs, Greenpeace spokesman

Joeri Thijs, Greenpeace spokesman

According to marketing teacher De Pelsmacker, a ban on fossil advertising is not a form of censorship. ‘The goal sanctifies the means. As with tobacco advertising, the goal is public health. And a ban on advertising for games is about ethics and mental health. The fact that fossil fuels are also harmful to health is a matter of promoting insight and support. Fifty years ago, no smoking was a problem. ‘

TotalEnergies answers

We asked the oil and gas company TotalEnergies for an answer. Spokeswoman Stéphanie Dezaunay believes it is a false claim that the company’s strategy is ‘greenwashing’. ’50 percent of TotalEnergies ‘investments go to growth in energy supply: 30 percent to the development of low-carbon energy (25 percent to renewable energy sources and electricity and 5 percent to molecules such as biogas and hydrogen gas) and 20 percent to gas and mainly shale gas (LNG)’ , it sounds. “By 2030, our renewable energy portfolio will have a capacity of more than 25 gigawatts.”

The company does not want an advertising ban as an incentive to adapt to climate change. Dezaunay: ‘TotalEnergies has mastered the challenge of the coming years: more energy, less emissions. Our company is transforming towards sustainable solutions. TotalEnergies wants to become an important player in the energy transition. ‘

Greenpeace disputes TotalEnergie’s figures

Joeri Thijs: ‘The French NGO Reclaim Finance made a comprehensive analysis of TotalEnergies’ investment figures. In 2020, 90 percent of their construction costs went to fossil fuels, and their projections for the future are miles away from what the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) and the International Energy Agency (IEA) presented as necessary for the transition away from fossil fuels.

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