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CBS EcoAd Accused of Greenwashing in FTC Complaint

CBS is the target of a formal complaint to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), over the broadcaster’s EcoAd program.

Environmental groups Friends of the Earth, the Rainforest Action Network and Center for Environmental Health, along with news website Ecopreneurist, filed the complaint on Wednesday. They allege that EcoAd violates federal laws and the FTC’s Green Guides for environmental advertising claims.

The EcoAds, launched at the start of this year, recognize brands that sponsor environmental projects. These could include solar installations and refits of schools, affordable housing or municipal buildings. Every time an advertiser buys an EcoAd package, a portion of the price funds projects that public bodies have identified as critical yet underfunded.

The seal was developed by advertising company EcoMedia, which CBS acquired last year.

In the complaint, the environmental groups told the FTC that the ad program “may deceive viewers, provide CBS with an unfair advantage over its competitors, and create an unfair advantage for companies and products participating in the program.”

The groups say that the EcoAd program is available to any advertiser, regardless of their environmental record. They say that a number of EcoAd launch partners, including PG&E and Chevrolet, have poor environmental track records.

The complainants called on CBS to add text to EcoAds, alerting viewers “that the symbol does not specify any positive environmental attributes of companies or products advertised”.

“An Eco-label that promises advertisers a green image while telling them they don’t need to do anything to earn that image is the very definition of greenwashing,” CEH executive director Michael Green said. “We urge the FTC to work with CBS to fix this broken program, which can only serve to confuse consumers and create cynicism about these bogus corporate environmental ads.”

“We can’t buy into CBS’s fantasy — we’re just getting sold more junk ideas and products,” Friends of the Earth president Erich Pica said.

CBS countered that all EcoAd commercials direct consumers to visit the EcoAd website, which it said clearly explains the methods, motives, and benefits of the program.

The website says, “A portion of the proceeds from the sale of each EcoAd goes to projects we believe will benefit the environment. EcoAd is not a certification program nor is the EcoAd logo a seal of approval. EcoMedia does not in any way certify, endorse or make any representations about EcoAd advertisers, their products or services.”

CBS said it has also committed to airing separate EcoAd announcements explaining the program, and the role of the logo, in markets where EcoAds run.

“Obviously I respect the environmental groups that have attempted to make our efforts better,” EcoMedia president and founder Paul Polizzotto told Environmental Leader. “I’m very, very proud of our work and I think we’ve been very clear about what EcoAds are and what they’re not.

“I’ve spent my entire career in the environment. It’s astonishing to me that the actual community from which I come is not coming to me first and saying, before we’re going to do this in the press… ‘Hey Paul, let us share with you some thoughts on how you might make your efforts even better.'”

EcoMedia also said that the EcoAd program has been endorsed by environmental leaders including former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, Robert Kennedy Jr. of the Natural Resources Defense Council, members of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Fred Krupp of the Environmental Defense Fund and Denise Sheehan of the Climate Registry.

In their letter, the groups making the FTC complaint asked the commission to investigate EcoAds and to warn CBS that it is not complying with the FTC Act and FTC Green Guides, which advise advertisers on sustainability claims. The Groups also called on CBS to develop criteria for evaluating advertisers, with compliance evaluated by a third-party auditor.

The FTC is currently updating the Green Guides. It has been taking actions against advertisers that it says use misleading environmental claims. In 2009, it charged Kmart Corp., Tender Corp., and Dyna-E International with making false and unsubstantiated claims that their paper products were “biodegradable.”

The commission also charged four companies — Sami Designs LLC, dba Jonäno; CSE Inc., Mad Mod and Pure Bamboo LLC and the M Group – selling clothing marketed as made from bamboo, with what the agency called deceptive advertising and marketing claims.

Last month a study released by communications agency Cone found that American consumers continue to misunderstand phrases commonly used in environmental marketing and advertising – such as “green” or “environmentally friendly” – giving products a brighter halo than they may deserve.

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10 thoughts on “CBS EcoAd Accused of Greenwashing in FTC Complaint

  1. This is a fascinating case of how challenging, yet important, it is for companies to get sustainability communications right. In this case, it appears that CBS is engaged in a kind of B2B cause marketing — requiring advertisers who participate in the program to make contributions toward environmental and social causes/projects. No one can deny a clear benefit here, but there is merit in the greenwash claim because this type of effort is likely to confuse consumers. The EcoAd logo is what they’ll see on television and the 99.99% of them who don’t take time to visit the EcoAd website will likely see the participating advertisers in a greener light or simply be confused.

    CBS would have been better off not creating a consumer-facing label for such a program. Rather, it would be better off just offering the option to advertisers (where it could include the logo and explain the program in media kits). This would permit both CBS and those advertisers to discuss such efforts in their sustainability reports, websites, or other places where it is much less likely to confuse consumers than 30-60 second TV spots with a green logo on them.

    If the FTC uses its newly revised, draft FTC Green Guides as guidance in examining the complaint, I predict it will side with the complainants and require CBS to fix the problem.

  2. @perry’s comments raise some really good points. when an ad campaign overshadows the benefits it purports to promote, then at a minimum, it probably deserves higher greenwash scrutiny, and potentially, a sanction and reworking along the lines perry mentions.

  3. While I believe in the work being done by the groups that brought this claim to the FTC, I disagree with how this all went down.

    In a society that’s filled with misinformation and untruths about green issues, it’s disappointing that groups designed to do good would choose the tactic of running to the media (in the form of issuing a press release) as a way to make their complaints heard. This only supports the mess of misinformation out there and scares companies off who might be trying to take genuine steps in the right direction.

    Also, the FTC serves an important purpose, but pointing consumers and the public to its Green Guide as a way to solve these types of problems will only cause more confusion as the FTC wording and explanations are practically a foreign language to most.

    That being said what these groups are trying to do is important, but I think every good environmental citizen knows you get things done better and more constructively when you work together rather than against each other.

  4. What this demonstrates to me in unnecessary meddling by the so called police for what green or not green. The FTC has no business interferring with private companies and their B2B efforts, if consumers and/or subcribers want to know what’s behind the EcoAd they should do their homework

  5. All things go wrong because when one thinks in terms of market and business, reflection comes last and reverence is neglected.
    Putting something into public arena – whether service, product ou attitude – should be considered thoughtfully, specialy in the case of sustainability a term that some business people is not relucting to decline or to detract.
    This is a good case for learned lesson.
    Joao Furtado, 14abril2011

  6. In response to Sarah: Our co-signer on the letter to FTC Jennifer Kaplan had an hour-long talk with CBS/EcoMedia President Paul Polizzotto, and also exchanged several emails with him. He rejected all of her critiques, defending his contradictory program (that tells advertisers “any ad can be an EcoAd” while telling the public that they have strict criteria for participation, as an example of just one major problem). His complaint now, that we didn’t talk to him first, is nonsense. If you disagree with “how this went down,” you’re being hoodwinked by CBS- again!

  7. There are many documented cases of businesses defrauding, deceiving and confusing consumers. There are businesses who do it on purpose and there are those who don’t. Regardless, businesses should be held to a high ethical standard no matter how complicated the issues get. Making money should not be at the expense of the environment or the public. If there were no violations, there would be no need for “meddling” as Joe calls it. If the companies involved weren’t so rich and powerful and making a lot more money while buying a greener image through the program, then watchdog groups may not have to resort to the tactics Sarah_EnviroPR bemoans. For a company as large, as high profile and as influential as CBS, Mr. Polizzotto should have taken more care. In fact, if he has been part of the community for so long, why did he even let this go through without rigorous public information/education. I think it is disingenuous to say that the public has access to the information online when the nature of television ads means viewers get blasted quickly with just enough information to leave an impression. Not everyone is as watchful, as aware or as armed with sufficient knowledge to make distinctions between what is being implied and what the facts are. Why not make it clear up front? Why not have more transparency?

  8. @Sarah, so that you know I interviewed Paul with A CBS rep on the phone for over an hour. I asked him to change the name to Rebuild America so that the companies who advertised would not be associated with being green. And yes, I told him how misleading the name was and the public would be fooled by the EcoAd. So, I have a real problem with Paul stating no one talked to him. I know Jennifer did and so did I. See http://bit.ly/goGtdq

    @Monique. You took the words right out of my mouth.

    Who stands to make alot of money from this effort? CBS.

  9. I appreciate all the responses and eagerness to get the facts out there. It’s clear that there is plenty that was not included that was vital to allowing readers to fully understand the scope of the story. I agree the FTC filing is a strong move to make EcoMedia operate more transparently and appropriately; however, I still maintain taking that step would not have been my next move.

    I would have preferred to see, and what would have won me over from the start, was a campaign directed to the public on a public platform. Give me (someone who has no way of knowing what conversations went on where/when) the information and the ability to decide whether I am being misled. Transparency. I want to know ALL the facts and be able to join the organization’s voices and build a force to encourage change before turning it over to a regulatory body for a ruling, which leaves me out of the process entirely.

    While this example is extreme the general principle applies, Greenpeace utilizes grassroots methods to encourage change (however radically they may sometimes be), they create a forum of education and expression that brings awareness to the issue and encourages companies to change on their own, a recent example is their dispute with Nestle over the use of palm oil in Kit Kat wrappers. A public forum was created through multiple channels that encouraged public discourse; efforts were made to bring education and awareness to the issue; the public joined the conversation and the company took voluntary action as a result of the public pressure.

    Where I found the disconnect here was that as a consumer I was excited to see a program like EcoMedia, then to hear organizations have made the decision to file against it seemed out of nowhere and hurtful to something that seemed to be making an effort to do good, causing me to come to its defense. Moving from internal conversations to FTC filing leaves more question marks in a debate that I have not been asked to be a part of, but am being advocated on behalf of.

    I support the good work these groups are doing, but in this situation I would have taken a different route. Also, if Jen and Co. wouldn’t mind providing links to the interviews with Polizzotto I’d very much be interested in reading them.

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