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    How a windfall tax could sever marketing’s unhealthy addiction to fossil fuels

    Amid the UK’s energy crisis, windfall taxes for providers and polluters have been much in the zeitgeist. But what of the marketing partners that help them along? Alex Lewis, co-founder of agency Revolt, argues that it could be time for our own windfall tax.

    “Our world is in big trouble.” These were the first words from the United Nations secretary general at the recent general assembly in New York. He wasn’t talking about Russia’s aggressive rhetoric on Ukraine or the global crunch on the cost of living, but about the climate emergency.

    Governments must stage an ‘intervention’ to break their addiction to fossil fuels, Antonio Guterres said, by targeting not only the fossil fuel companies themselves but the entire infrastructure of businesses that support them – their ‘enablers,’ as he called them. 

    This is not a new line of attack. In April at the launch of the latest IPCC report, Guterres had summed it up when introducing the report’s findings: “Some government and business leaders are saying one thing but doing another. Simply put, they are lying. And the results will be catastrophic.”

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    But at the General Assembly he got specific: “That includes the massive public relations (PR) machine raking in billions to shield the fossil fuel industry from scrutiny. Just as they did for the tobacco industry decades before, lobbyists and spin doctors have spewed harmful misinformation.”

    While the UN doesn’t have the power to directly enforce such an intervention, his comments send an important signal; a call to action to those who can enact real change. To the developed countries that have a disproportionate impact on emissions, the businesses that operate there and, pointedly, the industries that serve as their voice. 

    How do we change?

    The first step is to follow France’s lead with a ban on fossil fuel-related advertising. This will happen naturally, but slowly, as the conscience kicks in with more and more media outlets self-imposing the ban. Let’s not procrastinate any longer, and announce that we’ve done the right thing before Cop27.

    Agencies will start to see the fallout reach their own door. At Cannes this year Greenpeace crashed the opening ceremony to call out the advertising industry “for working with the fossil fuel industry and being complicit in spreading disinformation around the climate catastrophe and promoting their polluting products.” 

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    Crucially, those with fossil fuel clients will increasingly struggle to retain and attract talent. A recent UK survey of 18-30-year-old creatives found 63% were uncomfortable working with high-carbon clients; 40% said they would consider refusing work for high-carbon clients. Without an intervention, agencies working on fossil fuel-related advertising will start to see their reputation damaged both internally and externally. 

    The case for a windfall tax

    How about media that’s less easy to pin down, such as promotions, PR and content-led approaches? Here, we need a windfall tax on all revenue the marketing industry takes from oil and gas.

    The fossil fuel industry is a huge source of revenue for public relations firms. Research by Brown sociologist Robert Brulle, quoted in BuzzFeed, found that five big oil companies have “spent nearly $3.6bn in advertising purposes for corporation promotion” between 1986 and 2015.

    Even a modest windfall tax of 25%, like the one recently imposed in the UK on the oil and gas companies themselves, would be a significant levy.

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    Or take AFPM, a trade group that has aggressively opposed climate action, which paid Edelman at least $12m for public relations work from 2017 to 2019 (reported by BuzzFeed in the same piece). Revenue from our tax could go towards the work of the Environmental Justice League to help the 41 climate refugees that are displaced every minute by extreme weather events.

    It’s time for the industry to be part of the solution, not the problem. Too much of marketing’s talent, energy and creativity are spent celebrating what fossil fuel companies say while masking what they really do. Industry group Clean Creatives found that in 2020 and 2021, 80% of Chevron advertisements mentioned sustainability, while only 1.8% of its capital spending went to non-oil and gas projects; while Shell has admitted that its “operating plans and budgets do not reflect Shell’s Net-Zero Emissions target” widely featured in its advertising. 

    A windfall tax can help to turn marketing’s longstanding, symbiotic relationship with fossil fuel propaganda. It was marketing and PR that first helped to shift the conversation from corporate responsibility to personal responsibility; from demanding structural change to focusing on your own carbon footprint. Tellingly, it was a campaign for British Petroleum (BP) that first introduced the carbon footprint calculator and elevated the idea of assessing one’s own impact – conveniently often at the expense of considering the larger impacts of the likes of BP.

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    This influence too was recognized in the recent IPCC report: “Corporate advertisement and brand-building strategies … attempt to deflect corporate responsibility to individuals, and/or to appropriate climate care sentiments in their own brand building; climate change mitigation is uniquely framed through choice of products and consumption, avoiding the notion of the political collective action sphere.”

    For too long marketing has been a tool that major polluters use to shift and avoid blame. To quote Guterres again: “Our planet is burning. And our addiction to fossil fuels is moral and economic madness.” A more fiscal solution could be marketing’s only cure.

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