A fossil fuel called ‘gas’. Photo: Getty
A fossil fuel called ‘gas’. Photo: Getty

MediaJuly 23, 2021

Good one, ASA, for saying this gas ad misleads. Shame on you for failing to call it irresponsible

A fossil fuel called ‘gas’. Photo: Getty
A fossil fuel called ‘gas’. Photo: Getty

When you’re faced with advertising telling people we can help solve climate change by burning fossil fuels, it shouldn’t be difficult to condemn it in the strongest possible terms, argues lawyer Steven Price.

In about 2050, when the climate has gone further to hell in a handbasket, there are going to be a lot of angry documentaries. How did it come to this? Why didn’t they stop it when they could? Film-makers will look at what was going on in 2021: politics, films, social media, TV, mainstream media. They will look at advertising. They will see beautiful people being entirely complacent about flying, driving, consuming meat and dairy, consuming everything else.

They will see the TV ad by Firstgas. And they will think: “That’s going in my documentary.”

That ad! Remember it? You watch a smug chef using a gas-burner to cook some meat for smug customers to enjoy; a smug woman luxuriating in a gas-heated bubble bath; some smug blokes standing round a gas-fired barbie.

The voiceover: “New Zealand’s heading towards zero carbon so we’re ensuring our gas is going zero carbon too. You know what that means for you? Absolutely nothing. You can continue doing what you love. And help change the world, without changing too much of yours. Find out more at gasischanging.org.nz.”

Read that again. They are telling you that you can use all the gas you like, and that this will “help change the world”. Because they are going zero carbon. So you don’t need to do anything, except keep cooking with gas.

Except. For. One. Thing.

Using natural gas produces carbon dioxide. The delivery pipelines leak methane. If you “continue doing what you love” with fossil gases, you are contributing to the climate crisis. In that sense, I suppose, you are indeed helping to change the world.

What is Firstgas? It’s a corporate group that owns and operates pipelines and delivery systems for natural gas and LPG. They boast of having 430,000 customers. And, yes, they are exploring zero carbon solutions. They are hoping to start blending their gas with hydrogen, which doesn’t produce carbon dioxide. They’re hoping to put 20% of it into the mix by 2035. 100% by 2050. That’s their goal. But if you look at their website, you’ll see that at this stage, it’s mostly research, industry studies and trials.

I hope that works out. I hope their other research into zero carbon alternatives works out. But in the meantime, I think they should stop telling people that we can help solve climate change by burning fossil fuels.

Do I really need to spell this out? It seems that I do. We need to massively stop burning fossil fuels right now to have any chance of saving the planet.

You can tell I am exercised about this. I drafted a complaint about the ad for Lawyers for Climate Action. In response, Firstgas said, effectively, don’t be silly, this is just a branding campaign – we’re just letting people know about our carbon-zero research. “When I use a word”, said Firstgas, ‘’it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”

No, wait. That last bit was Humpty Dumpty.

Anyway, the complaints board of the Advertising Standards Authority disagreed with Firstgas. In a decision released yesterday, it said the ad gave the impression that “if you continue to use gas it won’t cause any harm to the environment, because gas energy will be zero carbon in the near future.”

It said the ad was misleading. It said Firstgas couldn’t back it up with any evidence. (In fact, Firstgas admitted “any large-scale changes are still some way off.”) It said the ad breached standards requiring truthful presentation and accuracy in environmental claims. Yes.

A minority went further, agreeing with us that the ad was irresponsible. The ad “related to a socially significant issue” so “making unsubstantiated claims in this context meant the requirement to exercise a due sense of social responsibility had not been met.” This is in keeping with the usual approach in ASA decisions. If it’s a serious claim and it’s badly wrong, that’s irresponsible.

The majority, though, disagreed with that bit. Why didn’t they think this ad was socially irresponsible? Beats me. They didn’t give any reasons. Hang your heads in shame, majority members of the complaints board. You just found that Firstgas led consumers into thinking they “can continue to enjoy using gas without adding any carbon to the atmosphere”. This is literally the biggest problem the world has ever faced, and Firstgas is misleading people about what we need to do to avert it. Don’t worry about it! Keep doing what you’re doing! Hey, do more of it! Help save the planet by burning fossil fuel!

I wonder what the majority thought when they saw Firstgas’s initial press release about the decision? Firstgas was “disappointed” but “it was pleasing that the advert was not found to breach standards of social responsibility or environmental claims.”

Wrong again. The ACSB did find a breach of the environmental claims rule. (Firstgas have made a correction.)

I wonder what the majority think when they look at the gasischanging website now. The ad is still there, right up front, with all the smug beautiful people happily using gas, though the sound is taken off. The sound is replaced by banner headlines: “CHANGE THE WORLD WITHOUT CHANGING TOO MUCH OF YOURS”

And: “THE FUTURE OF GAS IS CHANGING, SO YOU DON’T HAVE TO.”

And: “WHAT DO YOU NEED TO DO? ABSOLUTELY NOTHING.”

Is that socially irresponsible yet?

This piece represents the author’s opinion and is not written on behalf of LCANZI.

Illustrations by Sharon Lam

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