Advertising campaigns for oil and gas companies are using familiar tactics to greenwash and shift public opinion, often with the same strategies that tobacco companies used to make smoking look sexy and appealing to youth.

In fact, fossil fuel companies aren’t just using tobacco companies’ PR playbook — in many cases, they’re even using the same agencies that wrote it.

Duncan Meisel is the executive director of Clean Creatives, a coalition of PR and ad professionals pledging to promote climate safe advertising. He said big advertising firms are notoriously involved in both the proliferation of tobacco ads and of fossil fuel ads, and they’ve done so while knowing that scientific evidence proved their products to be harmful to human health.

Duncan Meisel, executive director of Clean Creatives, a coalition of PR and ad professionals pledging to promote climate safe advertising.

For decades, the oil industry has known the truth about the devastating impacts of fossil fuels, yet still partnered with advertising agencies and PR firms to create multi-billion dollar campaigns to mislead and confuse the public, downplay the urgency of the climate crisis, and overstate the work being done to find a solution. “Ending advertising and PR for fossil-fuel companies is a crucial step toward climate justice,” Clean Creatives states in a call for major firms to drop oil and gas clients.

Still, hundreds of millions continue to be paid annually for PR activities to shift cultural and media discourse and obstruct climate action. “If you only look at climate science denial, you’re missing this other amount of money that’s probably 10 or 20 times larger than the climate science denial effort,” said environmental sociologist Robert Brulle, who led a landmark ​​study​​ on the role of public relations firms in climate change politics.

In Canada, fossil fuels can still be seen advertising on billboards, sponsoring major arts and culture events, ​​and promoting their products in media campaigns, even on the CBC.

“PR and ad firms are central players in what we call the influence industry… They prop up these companies’ social licence to operate.”

And there was a time when it was the same for cigarettes.

Throughout the 20th century, even up to present day, tobacco companies have spent billions on advertising to sell their products. Meisel said global PR firms like Hill + Knowlton created the original tobacco industry marketing strategy of disinformation that uses fake science and fake solutions. “Now that same agency runs the [pro-oil lobby group] Oil and Gas Climate Initiative, which uses fake science and proposes fake solutions to the climate crisis.”

Canada has previously taken legal measures to prohibit tobacco advertising for the benefit of public health. Now, health and climate advocates are looking to the history of tobacco advertising and the legislative process it took to ban it.

A fossil fuel ad ban would be consistent with the history of consumer and public health protections laid against harmful tobacco advertising in the UK, the US, and Canada.

There are enough parallels that emerge between fossil fuel ads and tobacco ads to use tobacco’s history as a precedent. Both are public health concerns pitted against a lifestyle of consumption driven by powerful commercial players.

The comparison also reveals the challenges that the fossil fuel ad ban campaign might encounter and have to navigate.

“Ending advertising and PR for fossil-fuel companies is a crucial step toward climate justice.”

“It’s relatively obvious what we should do,” says economic ethics expert Peter Dietsch, a philosophy professor at The University of Victoria. “The challenge is more one of political feasibility.”

“Here’s an activity that harms people. Therefore we have a collective obligation to regulate that activity — or prohibit it in this case.”

Canada led the world with tobacco advertising regulations

In 1989, Canada adopted some of the world’s toughest anti-smoking laws, which included strict restrictions on tobacco advertising and mandatory health warnings. This ruling came years after governments officially started to recognize the hazardous health impacts of tobacco. This led to a parliamentary review in 1969, recommending the elimination of all cigarette sales promotions.

A du Maurier cigarette ad from the 1970s.

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Then, in 1995, the Superior Court of Quebec responded to a challenge against tobacco restrictions from tobacco companies RJR-Macdonald Inc. and Imperial Tobacco Ltd. who argued that the bans were unconstitutional as they targeted free speech.

The court ruled that tobacco ad bans and mandatory health warnings on labels were constitutionally acceptable, concluding that the harm tobacco products caused the public, and particularly to youth, far overshadowed the concerns of the tobacco companies themselves.

Like the fossil fuel industry, tobacco companies would pour in over six billion dollars annually in cigarette advertising, creating a significant impact on tobacco consumption.

“The core dynamics are very very similar as I see them between private cars and cigarettes… You have big commercial interests, and you have a lot of people who are personally dependent.”

Advertising and public relations agencies took tobacco companies on as clients and supported an “aggressive” campaign to undermine tobacco health warnings.

One of the largest advertising firms in the world is Edelman, which supported numerous tobacco companies through the 80s and 90s, as well as tobacco lobby groups. The firm now represents fossil fuel companies.

“PR and ad firms are central players in what we call the influence industry,” said former Edelman executive Christine Arena on the podcast Drilled. “They prop up these companies’ social licence to operate… Our focus, everyone’s focus, needs to shift to climate obstruction, what it is and what it looks like, and corporate propaganda. That’s where the game is now.”

Selling a lifestyle of consumption

When it comes to fossil fuel ads, there are two distinct types of advertising that face different challenges when navigating the legal system and political concerns.

The complaint from the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE) against ads from three oil industry trade associations and lobby groups — the Canadian Gas Association, the Canadian Energy Centre, and the Pathways Alliance — are examples of direct disinformation, skewed statistics, and greenwashing to the public. These are a lot easier to prove to be misleading because you can directly fact-check them.

The other type of ad is a fossil fuel product ad, such as an SUV or a gas oven ad. These are harder to prove to be misleading — and are closer to the way tobacco advertised.

In the UK, climate activists hacked billboards to protest car advertising. Several UK municipalities have introduced restrictions on the advertising of polluting products such as fossil fuel companies, flights and SUV cars.

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The misleading ways in which fossil fuel products like light-duty trucks are marketed in the media promote a lifestyle of consuming products that keep emissions high.

The transportation sector is responsible for nearly one-third of greenhouse gas emissions, more than half of which are produced by SUVs, crossovers, pickup trucks, and vans, according to a study done by Canadian environmental non-profit Equiterre. Car advertising is a key driver of consumer behaviour controlling social interactions, public perceptions, and creating associations between products and social values.

“The core dynamics are very very similar as I see them between private cars and cigarettes,” says Cynthia Callard, Executive Director of Physicians for a Smoke-Free Canada, drawing a connection between the movements to ban fossil fuel ads and tobacco ads.

CAPE’s complaint is based on two misleading claims from the Canadian Gas Association. “One, that natural gas is clean, [because we know] there is no such thing as a clean fossil fuel.”

“You have big commercial interests, and you have a compelling need, and you have a lot of people who are personally dependent, or convinced or confused, but whose behaviours side with the commercial providers. That makes it more challenging for policy makers to change.”

The movement to ban tobacco ads cited two of the same primary concerns as fossil fuels.

Firstly, that cigarette ads were misleading to the public and obscured the negative health outcomes to consumers. Tobacco companies were “encouraging [consumers] to use cigarettes by deceiving them about the harm,” says Callard.

Tobacco has a long history of sharing disinformation regarding the negative health impacts of smoking — even after it became common knowledge. And it was certainly something tobacco promotions did not disclose until they were legally obligated to do so.

For years, Benson & Hedges tobacco company was the main sponsor of the Symphony of Fire, an annual multi-day fireworks exhibition event set to music. The event ended when legislation passed prohibiting any promotion by tobacco companies of cultural and sports events.

Secondly, a serious instigator of tobacco consumption had to do with the lifestyle imagery that was fed to the public in the form of, not only ad campaigns, but also product placements in films and television, pushing the widespread notion that smoking cigarettes was “fashionable, glamourous, and sexy.”

PR companies like Edelman, which were leading the pushback against tobacco ad regulations, used strategies to maintain doubt on the scientific front.

Edelman still has a ledger of fossil fuel companies as clients. It was involved in an Exxon campaign “encouraging people to oppose climate policy” and has worked with American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers. In 2021, the Guardian named Edelman CEO Richard Edelman as a “fabulist” and one of “America’s top climate villains.”

Ricochet reached out to Edelman but the firm declined to comment.

Lifestyle imagery “blunts people’s capacity to understand the harmfulness of the product,” argues Callard, speaking about tobacco ads. It’s the same commercial encouragement of consumer behaviour that “car ads are full of.”

Similarly, Meisel says, fossil fuel ads are not designed to sell a specific product. “They are designed to sell the idea of fossil fuel consumption as a whole.” The goal is to encourage less regulation and more social acceptance of dangerous oil, gas, and coal companies. Their goal is to mislead the public about the essential danger of burning fossil fuels on a planet that is overheating, he adds.

Callard explains that while there’s now a severe restriction against tobacco lifestyle imagery, it has still taken time for it to discourage the public from consuming tobacco products.

The larger cultural shift that is required to phase out heavy consumption and the reliance on products such as tobacco or nicotine, as well as fossil fuel products like SUVs, is a long process.

Pursuing legal methods to fight the climate crisis

CAPE’s case against the Canadian Gas Association has the potential to set an important precedent for advertising regulations. The case could impose a new ad ban on fossil fuel products in Canada as the first landmark case against greenwashing taken on by the Competition Bureau.

“It’s groundbreaking because it is the first investigation by the Competition Bureau into the gas industry in Canada,” says President of CAPE Dr. Melissa Lem. “I am optimistic that the Competition Bureau will rule in our favour.”

What if the kind of health warnings mandated for tobacco ads were also applied to climate-polluting products? That’s the question a 2020 campaign by UK-based non-profit ClientEarth asked, calling for a ban on advertisements from fossil fuel companies.

ClientEarth

CAPE’s complaint is based on two misleading claims from the CGA. “One, that natural gas is clean, [because we know] there is no such thing as a clean fossil fuel,” she says.

The other claim CAPE is challenging is that natural gas is affordable, when it’s actually less affordable than other energy options in some parts of Canada. Additionally, “as we start leaving behind fossil fuels, overall demand will reduce and prices will increase… Natural gas is not affordable now nor in the future.”

“I think we have a pretty solid case.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly given the power and influence of these companies, it has been difficult to create legislation that can rival large commercial interests. According to the Canadian Competition Act, it is against the law to create “false or misleading representations” and to create “misrepresentations to the public.”

It seems straightforward to prove the Canadian Gas Association campaign’s misleading claims through the Competition Act, explains Alberto Salazar, an expert in corporate and competition law. There is a case, he says. “In theory, the claim has the chance to win the case.”

Still, one of the challenges for CAPE that Salazar brings to attention is how costly and lengthy the litigation process can be if CAPE’s complaint does go further than the Competition Bureau, particularly if pitted against oil and gas giants like the CGA.

“Misleading advertising from the fossil fuel industry is obstructing our rights to a healthier future.”

Additionally, “getting attention at a judicial level is difficult. Vaping advertising for example — the Competition Bureau got nowhere,” notes Callard. “There’s lots of failed attempts.”

This is where the distinction between the two types of ads is important.

Salazar explains that while it’s obvious now that tobacco ads have been misleading, at the time it was more effective to create a legislative ban from a public health intervention perspective. The same goes for fossil fuel product ads, which are not as easy to prove to be directly misleading under the Competition Act.

Despite restrictions against tobacco advertising, they are not bulletproof. In 2008, the Canadian Medical Association Journal printed a story about the resurgence of tobacco ads spearheaded by JTI-Macdonald, who were promoting modified cigarettes with a “less smoke smell technology” in efforts to pass their products as not detrimental to health.

Speaking to consumer protection ads, Callard says, “There’s a very wide tolerance for advertising to puff up the attributes of a product or to bring in other lifestyle imagery to create a brand impact. I think Canadians, whether knowingly or unknowingly, just accept it as part of our consumer system.”

A billboard campaign paid for by the “climate skeptic” group Friends of Science appeared in various locations across Canada in 2015. The campaign was challenged by Ecojustice on behalf of six Canadians, but was unsuccessful.

Ecojustice

While the Quebec consumer law uniquely does allow for a direct challenge against misrepresentation, the process for it has been “enormously exhaustive.” Case workers started the process in 1998 and got a court ruling only in 2015, many of whom still haven’t been paid for the work, she said.

“The impact has been disappointing,” says Callard, stressing that the ruling did not have much effect on the marketing of vaping, alcohol, cannabis, and drug companies. “I have not seen any difference.”

Economic and political challenges

The cultural shift that the fossil fuel ad ban campaign is looking to create is an arduous and enduring project. At present, CAPE’s complaint has only challenged one campaign — the CGA’s Fuelling Canada.

While a public health policy intervention makes sense, especially considering the tobacco precedent, the solution isn’t quite that simple.

The first issue is that there are deeply invested economic interests in Canada’s oil and gas industry. Canada is an oil and gas giant, and one of the biggest mining countries in the world. The industry is foundational to the Canadian economy and is “supported by some of the biggest Canadian investors,” warns Salazar.

For example, the Canadian Pension Fund has significant investments in the oil and gas industry. While a tobacco-like public health intervention would be effective in the short term, because of such investments, the solution “is unfortunately intertwined with other interests.”

The scale of fossil fuel industry lobby power as compared to tobacco industry influence is considerably larger, and far more intimidating. If the fossil fuel industry is phased out, the economic challenges it will pose to a variety of public interests, like the Canadian Pension Fund, makes this more complicated.

Comparing tobacco and fossil fuel industry pushback, Dietsch adds, “in the fossil fuel case, our economy and society are even more permeated by fossil fuels than it is or ever was by cigarettes. Not everyone smokes but pretty much everyone uses fossil fuels.” The share of Canada’s economy that ever relied on tobacco is a fraction compared to fossil fuels. That says the industry pushback is going to be much more aggressive “and the reluctance of politicians to touch the subject is going to be stronger,” he says.

In 1996, Canada’s then health minister David Dingwall spoke of his desire to ban the use of tobacco products entirely, suggesting that it would be the cause of over 40,000 deaths just that year. However, he recognized that such a ban would not be feasible due to the millions of Canadians who were addicted to the product. The solution then was to curb the use of smoking and phase it out gradually and strategically.

In accordance, the Quebec ruling against tobacco ads was not actually based on the illegality of the products themselves, but the illegality of spreading disinformation.

“There’s a very wide tolerance for advertising to puff up the attributes of a product or to bring in other lifestyle imagery to create a brand impact. I think Canadians, whether knowingly or unknowingly, just accept it as part of our consumer system.”

The fossil fuel ad ban would be a similar strategic response to the need for phasing out fossil fuels. At the moment, the oil and gas industry has influence, capital, and power over governments, workers, and consumers, as well as the critical function as the main source of how we heat our homes.

Due to this embeddedness and the lack of action for decades, a shift to renewables is now urgently needed. Challenging the health claims in advertising is a significant step towards this phase out while also addressing the larger health and environmental concerns regarding greenhouse gas emissions.

Dietsch notes that “defenders of fossil fuels will rightly point out that many uses of fossil fuels serve important, real needs,” but that “is entirely compatible with a ban on fossil fuel ads. A ban on ads stops no one from using fossil fuels. All it does is limit their promotion as the preferred means to satisfy our wants.”

Salazar sums up the greatest challenge in getting a fossil fuel ad ban to pass: “It’s more political than anything else.”

Oil and gas giants have enormous financial as well as political power, and it will not be easy to convince policy-makers to phase these companies out entirely.

Powerful oil and gas coalitions like the Pathways Alliance are buying goodwill on major media through ad campaigns that run on public broadcasters like the CBC. Glossy ad campaigns telling Canadians that the industry is a major part of the solution to the climate crisis, when in fact the opposite is the truth. The industry actively spends millions to maintain political influence, manipulate the masses, and build political consensus for or against policies that support climate action.

Canada’s natural resources minister has even repeated the Pathways Alliance talking points, and the Quebecois gas company, Energir, is still one of the members of Ad Standards Canada.

“Ultimately, one thing that might make things move are lawsuits, just as in the case of tobacco.”

As demonstrated in the RJR-Macdonald case, the public harm that was caused by tobacco advertising far outweighed the rights of any corporation to be promoting their products. This applies to fossil fuel companies as well.

Dietsch says corporate “free speech” has weaker protections compared to the free speech rights of individuals.

Importantly, it has been crucial to frame both tobacco and fossil fuel concerns as a health problem in getting policy-makers’ attention.

“The [tobacco] industry’s arguments against any kind of controls was that the science wasn’t proven… And so it was important to have a valid position,” says Callard. “You can put a doctor against the tobacco industry official and people will say ‘well, I guess the doctor’s right.’”

Dr. Melissa Lem, President-elect of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE).

Additionally, Callard recognizes the role of charitable health organizations like the Canadian Cancer Society and the Canadian Lung Association as crucial for the movement gaining traction. These charities were trusted non-partisan organizations and “had their origins in raising money for research and in providing patient care.”

Taking on the tobacco ads was the first time these organizations became political, which proved to be “a turning point for policy-makers.”

Callard, however, expresses doubt over a similar campaign today. “Sixty years later, I don’t know who it is that’s not politicized these days.”

And this is even more challenging considering the reach of the Canadian oil and gas industry, argues Salazar.

In response, CAPE president Dr. Lem says that “climate change is not political. It’s happening no matter what.”

“The fact that CAPE, which is a non-partisan charitable organization consisting of and driven by physicians, makes this complaint on behalf of the interest of our patients and public health… is getting people’s attention because we are not political. We are a non-partisan organization. All we want to do is protect the health of our patients and our communities,” she said.

“Misleading advertising from the fossil fuel industry is obstructing our rights to a healthier future.”

Lem emphasizes the responsibility of healthcare providers who are recognized as trustworthy by the public.

“The health profession has a lot of different things that are critical to this fight. Number one, trust from the public. Number two, we are a huge force. I think there are around 10 million doctors in the world, and even more millions of nurses. Just the fact that we have this many human resources at our beck and call is powerful. And just the fact that we’re evidence-based [and] when we speak, people listen.

“I think it is absolutely essential that the healthcare workforce speak up and in record numbers.”

France has become the first country in the world to ban fossil fuel advertising, but Greenpeace says it doesn’t go far enough. The symbolism is really what matters though. It shows that fossil fuels are increasingly viewed the same as tobacco.

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An advertising ban is just a step toward phasing out fossil fuels

It is worth noting that in the most recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was the first time it acknowledged the role of corporations in derailing climate action.

The UN, as part of COP27, released a report to end greenwashing, and it led to the Competition Bureau officially considering concerns of greenwashing. Additionally, some European countries have already seen regulations against fossil fuel related advertising including France and The Netherlands.

France’s ban is expected to take effect next year. However, Greenpeace is already expressing doubts over the effectiveness of it. “You will read everywhere that advertising for fossil fuels is now prohibited, but that’s not true,” Greenpeace France tweeted in August. “Ads for gas can continue, patronage, sponsorship, institutional communication, and financial advertising on fossil products remain authorized.”

Callard said an advertising ban is more symbolic. “Just a starting [point] to address the role of these commercial providers and the role of these products in society. It is a first step, but it is a very important symbolic step.”

Similar to tobacco, the movement to ban fossil fuel ads will likely keep fighting through the courts.

“Ultimately, one thing that might make things move are lawsuits, just as in the case of tobacco. It’s less likely that politicians on their own will take a stance on this and take a political risk in the absence of legal challenges,” says Dietsch.

For now, trusted medical professionals calling to attention a public health crisis may be one of the most important ways in which the industry and its dece