Dreaming of an ever-green Christmas
Dominic Mills gets to grips with the industry's green agenda before reviewing more Christmas ads
Let’s talk green, let’s talk Christmas ads this week. Next year, perhaps, as the green agenda spreads through the industry, we’ll all be dreaming of a greener Christmas as measured by the carbon footprint of all those big ads.
Last week saw the industry, in the form of a combined effort from the AA, ISBA and the IPA, launch its eco rallying cry: Ad Net Zero, a call to turn the industry carbon neutral by 2030.
Half manifesto, half guidebook, it both sets out an ambitious agenda and makes suggestions on how to get there.
I’ve been sceptical in the past, but I’m converting. So the first thing to do is to acknowledge the achievement.
First, in getting the industry together in short order. It’s really less than two years since the greening of advertising first hit the agenda. Pulling together the disparate groups is never easy, all the more so during current times.
Second, in measuring the industry’s carbon footprint, knowledge and understanding of which must form the starting point for anyone talking carbon emissions.
And third, for opening up debate about some of the more contentious trade-offs that any client or agency wishing to play its part will have to confront.
Kudos to the AA too for pulling the coalition together, and for inviting contributions from The Purpose Disruptors, a group of industry individuals with an altogether more fundamentalist, verging on the take-no-prisoners, approach.
So…average annual emissions per individual in the ad industry are calculated at 3.4 tonnes of CO2, based on a survey of IPA members.
That is a lot lower than in many other sectors, but roughly in line with other service industries and, indeed, lower than the average individual UK citizen emission level of 5.3 tonnes (2019 figures, calculated by Carbon Brief).
No bad, but roll it up across the whole UK marketing and advertising sector and it comes out at a total of one million tonnes. Just over 40% of this comes from office energy consumption, and near 60% from travel.
Cutting travel therefore, is one easy way to reduce emissions, as would be more energy-efficient offices. Working from home will have demonstrated to many — clients too, whose insistence on meetings must constitute a fair chunk of that travel — that it is perfectly possible to function with less travel.
But within that, there are many complicating factors.
Production is clearly one, especially those big overseas shoots. The report estimates that one overseas shoot could generate more than 100 tonnes of CO2 once you factor in travel, supply chain logistics and hospitality.
Just taking out the travel would help, but even domestic shoots need looking at. Nonetheless, the pandemic has shown that exotic, full-on shoots don’t always produce results in line with the budget.
The report also draws attention to the carbon impact of media spend. This may be less obvious, but it is also significant. When you think about it, there is a carbon cost attached to running ads across any media channel.
Print and OOH clearly so, but also when you untangle the supply chain, digital. And how do you calculate the media element of an ad that runs in a carbon-intensive TV programme? It's all the more complex since ads are rarely bought against a specific programme.
As the report notes, not all media are equal in carbon impact.
Thus, two advertisers in the same sector with the same spend could generate very different carbon footprints.
Depending on the plan, they could also generate very different outcomes. Adding media impact/effectiveness to a carbon calculation will make life complicated and won’t necessarily produce the optimum result.
The report also puts awards ceremonies in the cross-hairs.
It’s not just the Cannes owner who should be nervous — all that travel, all that hospitality, all that conspicuous consumption — but any publisher whose business model depends on hundreds of people all piling into Grosvenor House for a three- or four-course dinner that includes rubber chicken, green beans flown in from Kenya and warm white wine.
Given the right mood and will however, all these problems can be tackled. But then we get into a potentially more contentious area which, to give the authors of the report credit, they don’t shy away from.
Indeed, they have coined a portmanteau word to describe it — ‘ecoffectiveness’.
This, in essence, raises the question of how to judge advertising whose success generates incremental CO2 emissions.
It’s not difficult to think of examples: an airline or tourism campaign that encourages more travel, or a fashion campaign that inspires sales of clothing that, strictly speaking, falls under the heading of a discretionary purchase.
The report labels this the ‘missing measure’, which it describes as a ‘key element of all effectiveness cases going forward if society is to keep global warming to within 1.5 degrees’.
One of its proposals is that the industry generates a new metric, which it calls ‘Return on CO2e’, a calculation of revenue generated for each tonne of CO2 emitted.
Which brings me round to Christmas advertising. Consider applying a return on CO2e filter to Christmas. By definition, most Christmas advertising is designed to drive spend that is discretionary and incremental. This is stuff we don’t normally buy, and we invariably buy more than we need: turkey, party snacks, tinsel, gifts, gadgets made in China, wrapping paper…the list is endless, and almost all of it generates CO2.
But for many businesses, Christmas is a matter of life or death. It doesn’t make you feel too comfortable, does it?
Christmas ads: too mawkish, too serious
I’ve got to the point sadly, where I find it increasingly difficult to tell one Christmas ad from another. Perhaps it was always this way, but this year feels worse.
I think I know why; animation, compounded by an overdose of sentimentality and invariably accompanied by a mawkish warble of a soundtrack.
Some of them are simply really boring too. They just go on for what seems like ever and nothing really happens.
I understand and, to a point, I sympathise. Live action, for starters, is high risk. No advertiser wants to get caught on the wrong side of the national mood even if, when they made the ads, it was impossible to discern it. So they went all serious, worried that people having fun would send the wrong signals.
I’m thinking here of John Lewis/Waitrose, for which the bar gets higher every year. But this year, it feels like it has played safe, perhaps mindful of the process of self-examination that the client is itself going through.
McDonald’s - same formula. Lidl too, although the soundtrack starts off as standard before slipping into a shopping list. But I liked the sly dig at Aldi over carrots, even if I missed it until a viewing on my laptop.
But let’s extend plaudits to two advertisers that dared to be different. First, Sainsbury’s. The thing about ‘Gravy Song’ is that it feels real. The family is having fun.
And good for it for pushing back against the racists who took offence at the casting.
The default position for many advertisers is to please all the people all the time and to fall over at the first sign of a social media backlash. Like many, I hope, I didn’t even notice the colour of the cast till the row kicked off.
But the advertiser that really has pushed the fun button is Tesco and its naughty list: real people, an upbeat soundtrack and a great idea. I laughed out loud. It may not please all the people, but what the hell…