If you fly into Los Angeles International Airport, you’ll see two massive industrial complexes near the south side of the LAX runways. One is Hyperion, LA’s largest sewage treatment plant. The other is Chevron’s El Segundo Refinery. El Segundo is also the site of my favorite parable of how far off the mark environmental advertising can get. In the late 1980s, Chevron launched an ad campaign called “People Do”, describing the good environmental deeds done by Chevron employees in the name of the environment. Chevron spent between $5 and $10 million a year on the print and broadcast campaign.

One of the ads featured the El Segundo Blue Butterfly, a gravely endangered insect whose last known habitat was the beach bluffs alongside the refinery. Chevron employees, we were told, were dispatched to plant buckwheat, the preferred form of butterfly chow, along the bluffs to help save the El Segundo Blue. It was a good deed, indeed.

Then some sleuths at the San Francisco-based Earth Island Institute read the fine print: Chevron was spending a few thousand dollars on the butterfly project — not voluntarily, but because they were required to do so by California law. Then Chevron spent millions of dollars to advertise a few thousands’ worth of a legally mandated good deed. Earth Island found many of Chevron’s 19 other ads to be similarly lacking. Top that off with the millions more than Chevron was spending to litigate and lobby against other environmental protection measures.

That’s my favorite moment from the Golden Age of Greenwashing. With the advent of the Obama administration, we’re seeing a rebirth of environmental advertising. Much of it’s corporate, but it’s hard to tell how much is as craven. Some, like the coal industry’s effort to launder its image, is off the charts. But some — even from industries with spotty eco-track records, may be more Green than Wash.

Flipping the dial on inauguration day between CNN, Fox, MSNBC and the broadcast networks in a decidedly un-scientific survey, it was impossible not to notice the green theme during commercial breaks. There were many companies: Vestas, a wind energy producer was prominent as was IBM’s Smarter Planet campaign featuring energy-saving efforts on power generation, traffic control and more.

Newspapers joined in, with special editions of the Washington Post, New York Times, and others launching supersized press runs. The Post also scalped its sale price in D.C. from 75 cents to $2 for Jan. 20 and 21. Nonprofits like the American Public Transportation Association joined the usual suspects with an ad showing a smiling President-elect riding Amtrak into town.

Having watched decades’ worth of good intentions and outright lies in green advertising, I have to say I felt a different vibe for this. Maybe it’s belated, but much of corporate America seems to have turned a genuine corner, and I don’t care whether it’s out of concern for the earth or the bottom line. The earth may just benefit from this. Media organizations, including the beleaguered newspapers, bless their hearts, certainly will. But there were still a few stinkers out there that didn’t look, feel or smell right.

Exxon/Mobil is running an ad featuring a mild-mannered scientist touting “the most important project” of his career in developing lithium-ion batteries for hybrid cars. A few weeks ago, I asked the company’s CEO, Rex Tillerson, about the depth of Exxon/Mobil’s commitment to anything non-carbon. He cited as the company’s centerpiece an R&D project that’s less than half of his own salary, and affirmed that Exxon/Mobil is, and always will be, an oil company.

The grand prize goes to the “clean coal” ads that were a staple of many networks’ political coverage during the campaign, and that continued through the inauguration. The Center for American Progress pegged the coal and electric industries’ ad buy at roughly $45 million during 2008. They’ve recently received some pushback from the Alliance for Climate Protection, Al Gore’s outfit that’s produced the “This Is Reality” TV ads.

The wheels came off the cart for the industry’s carbon capture and storage efforts in 2008, though new Energy Secretary Steven Chu says he will consider restoring funding to a $1.8 billion pilot project in Illinois. The Department of Energy sidelined its FutureGen public/private partnership for clean coal research last year for “restructuring.” For its part, the industry rolled out a new ad to mark the inaugural, featuring a campaign clip of Barack Obama touting the future of clean coal.

It’s ads like these that has John Stauber of the Center for Media and Democracy in Madison, WI, far from convinced. “Green advertising doesn’t fuel debate or critical thinking; it just allows people to think their problems are taken care of,” he said.

“The industries that are best funded, or that have the most to win or lose, are the ones that will have the loudest message,” continued Stauber. “Wal-Mart and McDonald’s are some of the few who are bucking the trend of consuming less. Clearly, they’ve taken some steps that are important and impressive, but it’s all in the context of their being this giant economic and consumption machine. One reason they want to look green so badly is that it’s great PR, and it allows them to play divide-and-conquer within the environmental community.”

Stauber’s got a point, and he’s done a great job as a watchdog of advertising claims since he founded CMD 15 years ago. But I’m not sure I’m buying his line 100 percent, either. Wal-Mart is most definitely not interested in letting go of the idea of mass consumption, but they’re also putting their suppliers through the wringer to get them to be more environmentally responsible. Even Chevron now has a series of widely-placed print and broadcast ads suggesting that using your car less is a good thing. In the 1980s and 1990s, green advertising was pure greenwash. Some still is. But other ads are a message that industry at least partially gets it: They need to do more than create the illusion that they’re cleaning up their act.


Peter Dykstra, the former executive producer of CNN's Science, Tech and Weather Unit is currently a Public Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington. He writes three columns for MNN: Media Mayhem on Mondays, Political Habitat on Wednesdays, and Green States on Fridays. (Yes, he writes a lot.)

Truth in advertising?
Obama spurs a wave of green political advertising ... but is it just Greenwashing(ton)?