Should we ban fossil fuel ads on TV and in movie theatres, like we do cigarettes?

By Seth Klein | August 16, 2021

1950s tobacco ad in magazineImage courtesy of Stanford Research Into the Impact of Tobacco Advertising

Editor’s note: This story was originally published by Canada’s National Observer. It appears here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Pre-pandemic, I remember sitting in a movie theatre waiting for the film to begin and being forced to watch yet another high-production car ad. I think it was a Jeep advertisement in this case, and clearly designed to appeal to young people, inviting them to conquer the great outdoors and enticing them into the company’s attractive domain. And I found myself wondering: why are ads for gas stations, gas-powered cars and trucks, and airlines not illegal?

More recently, tuning in to some of the Olympics broadcast, I was inundated by fossil fuel car ads and others seeking to entice me back onto an airplane, and started fuming on this question once again. Here I sat in a province with more than 200 active forest fires, watching athletes across the globe sweat under the twin perils of COVID-19 and the climate crisis, only to be bombarded by ads for products that further imperil the futures of these young competitors and the youth they seek to inspire. Something in this picture ain’t right.

Why are we letting fossil fuel companies sell us our own demise? We no longer allow cigarette and tobacco ads on TV, radio or in movie theatres, given the known harm these products cause. Why then do we permit ads for the fossil fuel products we know to be a civilizational threat? These ads send a message, even if we don’t buy the specific product they are selling. They normalize what must now be wound down and encourage young people in particular to idealize these products and the lifestyles they promote. That needs to end.

Advertising works. That’s why it’s a multibillion-dollar business, and it’s why oil, gas, car, and airline companies spend as much as they do seeking our favor. According to one study, over a recent 30-year period, the world’s five biggest oil companies spent $3.6 billion (in US dollars) on ads specifically aimed at shoring up their reputation as green-friendly. Ads are one reason why gas-guzzling pickup trucks are so popular, even among those with no genuine need for them. As Quebec environmental group Équiterre found in a study released earlier this year, aggressive advertising helps to explain why light-duty vehicles—SUVs, pickups, and vans—now account for 80 percent of new vehicle sales in Canada, which in turn is a big reason why greenhouse gas emissions from transportation are still rising.

Because advertising matters so much to the fossil fuel corporations, it ought to matter to the rest of us, too.

Emergencies need to look, sound, and feel like emergencies, and public messaging and education during an emergency needs to be consistent and coherent (just as we’ve all witnessed in the pandemic). But ubiquitous advertising of fossil fuel vehicles, gas stations, gas suppliers and appliances, air travel and the ongoing sponsorship of arts and sports events by fossil fuel companies all sends a confusing message—are we facing a climate emergency or aren’t we?

The sponsorship of youth sports leagues, tournaments, and races by fossil fuel companies feels particularly obscene. What does it mean that, in order to keep these sports activities financially accessible, young people and their families must make a Faustian bargain with the very companies causing increases in childhood asthma and producing a future for those kids marked by extreme weather events, food system disruption, death and destruction? Granted, years of public underfunding of amateur sports and the arts has put these organizations in an untenable bind—far better to tax companies appropriately and boost public support for these activities that keep us healthy and feed our souls.

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As we seek to mobilize the public to confront the climate emergency, one of the urgent tasks we face is to increase and improve basic climate education. A distressingly large proportion of Canadians lack basic climate change literacy. For example, in a 2018 survey of over 2,000 Canadians conducted by researchers from Lakehead University, only 48 percent of respondents correctly attributed carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases as the primary causes of climate change.

Similarly, Climate Access Canada, in a March 2021 survey of Canadian public opinion polls, notes that about 45 percent of the Canadian electorate falls within a muddled “moveable middle” with respect to climate; they agree climate change is a real problem, they are increasingly concerned—but they are not yet engaged, they are unfamiliar with climate policy, and they do not understand what causes climate change; they do not identify the burning of oil and gas in our vehicles, homes, and buildings as a major source of global warming.

TV ads for cigarettes
1950s TV ad for cigarettes. Collection courtesy of Stanford Research Into the Impact of Tobacco Advertising

Make it illegal to advertise the climate crisis. This lack of public understanding, however, shouldn’t come as a surprise. Fossil fuel companies have poured millions into public disinformation campaigns. The level of public education on these matters has been woefully inadequate, and our educational institutions, media and political leaders have not done nearly enough to rectify this.  

But the ongoing presence of oil and gas advertising surely pours fuel onto this dumpster fire of confusion. If our federal government claims we face a climate emergency—which it rightly does—yet still allows such advertising, then no wonder so much of the public fails to equate fossil fuel combustion with the climate crisis. The dissonance undermines the emergency message.

Minimally, our news media (broadcasters, print and social media platforms) should, in the face of the climate emergency, be prohibited from accepting fossil fuel advertising. If Canadians are to have confidence that these outlets have chosen the side of humanity, and are not compromised by or complicit with those who seek to block progress, then these media companies should be denied advertising revenues from such companies. (In January 2002, The Guardian newspaper led the way, voluntarily deciding to reject fossil fuel ads).

Additionally, fossil fuel cars and appliances should come with consumer alerts. Large labels—as with cigarette packages—declaring: “Warning! Vehicles powered by the combustion of gasoline are one of the leading causes of the global climate crisis. Their continued use is a health and safety threat to future generations.” Or “Consumer Beware: before purchasing this product, be advised that over the next few years it will become increasingly difficult to locate fuel for this item.” Or how about requiring that air travel ads be, well, ugly—just like tobacco packaging that must carry scary photos of lung damage, why not make plane ads carry pictures of climate chaos? These consumer choices have consequences. Let’s connect the dots for people.

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It’s time for a campaign targeting federal and provincial political leaders and regulators to make the public advertising of fossil fuel companies, internal combustion engine vehicles and gas stations illegal, and to ban event sponsorships and public relations advertising by the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers and its organizational members.

A fossil fuel ad ban would build upon the legacy of cigarette ad ban campaigns, which were successfully led by health organizations. Both tobacco and fossil fuel products result in public health crises, and health experts understand that both target our lungs. Last February, new research from Harvard University found air pollution from burning fossil fuels was responsible for about one in five deaths worldwide (about 34,000 a year of which were in Canada). Health organizations have started to issue climate emergency declarations, rightly seeing the climate crisis as a fundamental threat to public health.

Given this, it’s welcome news that the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment is initiating a campaign to ban fossil fuel advertising. They are pulling together a national coalition to advance this call. But this time, we’ll need political leaders to act on the call far faster than it took their predecessors to act on the health warnings about tobacco products.

Calls to ban fossil fuel advertising are starting to emerge in other jurisdictions. As Canada’s National Observer columnist Chris Hatch reported in May: “Amsterdam just banned advertising for ‘fossil products’ (including airlines and cars) from metro stations. France’s new climate law will prohibit ads for oil, coal or gas. A new initiative called Clean Creatives is getting ad agencies to stop taking contracts that promote coal, oil or gas. And activists around the world are pressuring museums and event organizers to refuse sponsorships from oil, gas or coal companies.” The move by Amsterdam comes out of a larger Dutch-based campaign to ban fossil fuel advertising.

Even if a campaign such as this is not immediately successful, the campaign itself has public education value. It would help to boost public understanding of the connections between climate change and the combustion of fossil fuels in our vehicles and homes, highlight the adverse health impacts of fossil fuel air pollution, and spark an important conversation about what “emergency” really means. The campaign would help to stigmatize fossil fuel companies (much as tobacco companies were called out by historic efforts to ban cigarette ads), revoking the social licence of these companies that seek to block progress on this task of our lives. And helpfully, this initiative would force political leaders to show their cards about how serious they are about the climate emergency.

The reality of the climate emergency—fires, floods, heat, smoke and more—are surrounding us this summer. It’s time to ban advertisements that glamorize the very products that got us here.


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Steven David Stoffers
Steven David Stoffers
2 years ago

yeah, no more travel adverts especiallynthe airlines. in fact, we should should finally try to reduce Co2 emissions, the bigger than ever epicenter, post Covid19 and fake green projects, means global air travel. no more travel and air line adverts. great idea.

2 years ago

Curtailing ad expenditures by the energy companies should see an increase to the corporate bottom line . . . a plus for investors.