Successful case: Shell reprimanded for deceptive advertisement for children in appeal before the Advertising Code Commission

The complaint against Shell lodged by Fossielvrij Onderwijs and the Public Interest Litigation Project (PILP) of the Dutch Section of International Commission of Jurists (NJCM) to the Dutch Advertising Code Foundation,  was declared well-founded. The Board of Appeal considered that Shell’s advertisement on Gas-to-Liquid (GTL), liquefied natural gas, contained deceptive environmental claims. By referring to the UN Sustainable Development Goals and by omitting its negative environmental impact, Shell’s advertisement gave the impression that GTL is clean and sustainable. This resulted in an extensive decision in which Shell has been reprimanded and urged not to advertise in such a way again.

The reproached advertisement concerned a billboard at the Generation Discover Festival, a children’s festival on technology, which attracted 35.000 visitors in 2018. It promoted GTL as an alternative fuel for diesel, claiming that:

GTL‘s combustion is cleaner than regular diesel and causes lower emissions, which leads to the improvement of the air quality in the vicinity where GTL is used.

Moreover, according to the billboard, the GTL would contribute to Sustainable Development Goal 7 ‘sustainable and affordable energy’. The official logo and the corresponding text of the UN were used. However, the text was edited by Shell: instead of ‘clean energy’ it read ‘cleaner energy’.

The Board of Appeal of the Advertising Code Foundation deemed the advertisement to be in violation of Article 2 of the Code for Environmental Advertising, which provides that advertisement may not contain deceptive environmental claims. Thereby, the Board of Appeal wholly quashed the decision of the Advertising Code Committee, which had rejected the complaint in first instance.

The Board of Appeal concurred with us on the most essential elements of the complaint. It acceded that Shell’s advertisement gave the impression that GTL is a clean and sustainable energy source, while there is no essential difference between GTL and diesel fuel when the total environmental impact from ‘well-to-wheel’ is taken into account.

This will be eluded by the average visitor since every information on that matter has been omitted. Shell discerns between the emission of greenhouse gas on the one hand, and the global warming on the other hand. The Board cannot agree with that distinction.”

Furthermore, the Board of Appeal agreed with the complainants that, due to the fact that GTL is a fossil fuel, it could never improve air quality. It could, at most, be relatively less polluting.

On the usage of UN Sustainable Development Goal 7, the Board of Appeal considered that it is not justified to mention GTL in that context and present it as a form of sustainable and cleaner energy.

Fossielvrij Onderwijs and the PILP-NJCM are very pleased with the clear reasoning and decision of the Board of Appeal. We are happy with the confirmation that the UN Sustainable Development Goals may not be misused for the purpose of advertising fossil fuels.