Environmental Marketing Claims
March 8, 2011
Walking to work the other day, I saw a Toyota Prius festooned with advertisements for a local auto body shop. While I certainly noticed the Prius as I stood waiting to crossing to the street, what really caught my attention was the prominent representation that this auto body shop was “environmentally friendly.”
What, I wondered, could that mean? While the Bay Area Green Business Program has worked with auto body shops to help them become certified as a green business, this program doesn’t focus on the marketing message of any particular business.
Since I had no idea what the auto body shop’s marketing message meant, I jumped on the internet to see if I could find an explanation. What I found was that there were a lot of apparently “environmentally friendly” auto body shops. As I perused their various web pages and/or advertisements, I became convinced that these auto body shops (and/or their attorneys) had probably never heard of the Federal Trade Commission’s Green Guides.
Fresh off of a revision, the new and improved Green Guides attempt to offer understandable guidance for often incomprehensible environmental marketing claims. The main points of the Green Guides are: 1) advertisers need to be able to substantiate their claims – i.e., they have to have a reasonable basis for making the claim; and 2) the more specific a claim is, the more likely that it will not run afoul of the FTC’s guidelines. You see, the FTC looks at all advertising from the consumer’s perspective: what message does the advertising actually convey to consumers? The Green Guides view environmental claims by the meaning that consumers give them, not necessarily the technical or scientific points that the advertiser is trying to make. In other words, if a consumer could be mislead by the message, the message is misleading.
So, what do you do to ensure compliance?
First, read the guidelines. They are written in easy to understand prose. There are a lot of guidance examples, and the categories are broken down by specific types of claims. The Green Guides and other useful information about the Guides can be found at http://business.ftc.gov/advertising-and-marketing.
Second, common sense should be your guide. If you do not have competent and reliable scientific evidence, which the FTC views as “tests, analyses, research, studies or other evidence based on the expertise of professionals in the relevant area conducted and evaluated in an objective way by qualified people using procedures generally accepted in the profession to yield accurate and reliable results,” you should think twice about your claim. It doesn’t matter what you hoped to achieve with your ad, it only matters what the consumer would be able to understand from your ad.
Third, err on the side of caution. Specific points are advisable over general claims. An unqualified general claim of environmental benefit may convey that the product has far-reaching environmental benefits, which may not be true (or, at least, understood by the consumer). So, in the case of those auto body shops, their claims of being “environmentally-friendly” would not be deceptive if that representation were followed by clear and prominent language limiting the “friendly” representation to the product attribute for which it could be substantiated, and if the context didn’t create any other deceptive implications.
Finally, it doesn’t hurt to educate yourself on useful (and not-so-useful) marketing concepts. A survey released this week of nearly 300 members of Sustainable Industries’ audience, conducted by the Sustainable Branding Collaborative, a Portland-based firm, shows that what most consumers and businesses want is transparency. Don’t make claims that you can’t support. A link to the report can be found on the Sustainable Industries website. Or, you can check out our friends over at BBMG. They released a 2009 Conscious Consumer Report, which explores the consumer’s confusion and limited reliance on trust marks – labels that attempt to “certify” a product’s environmental attributes. BBMG has found that consumers cannot readily understand the clutter of the hundreds of trust marks that are in the marketplace today.
So what’s my message on environmental marketing claims? Say what you mean, mean what you say, and above else, you better be able to prove it.