TV Tunes in to Sustainable Advertising

Dan Meier 26 March, 2024 

This month saw the release of a new book aimed at guiding industry efforts on sustainability. ‘Sustainable Advertising: How Advertising Can Support a Better Future’, written by Matt Bourn, Director of Communications at the Advertising Association and Ad Net Zero, and Sebastian Munden, Chair of Ad Net Zero, lays out a manifesto for how advertising can help build a sustainable economy, and identifies some of the companies helping the industry make progress towards net zero emissions.

One of the key takeaways from the book is the important role that TV can play in those decarbonisation efforts, both in terms of its own sustainability practices, and by using its reach and influence to drive wider change in society. According to the House of Lords Environment and Climate Change Committee, one-third of carbon reductions will need to come from consumers adopting low-carbon lifestyles.

And while brands are increasingly marketing green products to the eco-minded consumer, research by Media Bounty, an independent media agency, has suggested that these campaigns need to reach a wider audience if they are to have meaningful impact on carbon reduction.

The report, ‘Beyond the Climate Bubble’, found that most green products are marketed at the 14 percent of UK consumers already engaged on climate issues, leaving 69 percent that the agency calls “the Persuadables” – those consumers who believe in climate change but feel alienated and lectured by sustainability messaging. And as a particularly trusted media channel, TV is an important instrument for brands looking to pursuade the pursuadables.

“While some people might be interested in learning more about companies’ sustainability efforts, brands need to consider the right media to communicate those,” Florencia Lujani, Strategy Director, Culture & Climate at Media Bounty, tells VideoWeeek. “In some instances, issues surrounding the environment are becoming controversial, so it’s not strange for brands to find their comment sections under fire from a vocal minority of consumers. Social media is usually the least trusted of news sources, in comparison to the high levels of trust that people have in formats like OOH or TV, so these should be considered as a key element of the media mix.”

Identify the moment 

Once advertisers have considered where they run sustainability messaging, they can also think about when best to deploy those campaigns. System1, a marketing research company, worked with ITV to create The Greenprint, a guide on how to create ads that drive positive impact for the brand and the planet, including identifying the right moment in the calendar to deliver that message.

“We know that as humans we’re more prone to adopting new behaviours at ‘fresh start’ moments,” says Chiara Manco, Creative & Media Partnership Director UK at System1. “So it could be the start of the year, or it could be a personal life change, or in the case of the environment, when environmental issues are at the forefront of the news agenda – whether it’s COP, whether it’s any other occassions around the environment, then it’s more top of mind, and we’re more bound to think about it and actually take action.”

Manco cites an example of a Co-op ad first launched when lockdown lifted in the UK, in which an elderly man leaves the house for the first time to recycle plastic at the local Co-op.


“That ad scored on our system amazingly when it first aired, five stars out of 5.9,” notes Manco. “And we tested it two years later, and it scored around four stars. So it’s clearly still a very strong ad, but because at the time it had an additional context of the end of lockdown, it was really speaking to people wanting to experience the outside, and it performed so much better.”

Make a mark

Another ingredient System1 found particularly effective is humour, a note Channel 4 embraced with its “carbon skidmark” campaign, which showed politicians and business people partying in oil-stained underwear. The campaign became Channel 4’s most complained-about content of 2023, and was criticised by Conservative MP Simon Jupp.


“Producing a metaphorical carbon skidmark was never going to be an easy sell for some people,” comments Nic Moran, Head of Brand Campaigns at Channel 4. “And it was essentially provocative. It had to be to cut through. The focus of the campaign was to do this quite important shift from moving the burden away from individuals to putting focus on those with power. People don’t want to be preached to, they don’t want to be told how to live their lives. So in true Channel 4 fashion, we do things differently. And it was definitely through an entertaining lens, with a bit of Channel 4 cheeky secret sauce on top.”

The campaign received 1,100 complaints, according to the broadcaster, more than double the second-most complained-about piece of Channel 4 content in 2023.

“We’ve never ever had a campaign that has provoked so much reaction,” notes Moran. “The volumes of people writing in, commenting on the work, both good and bad, was unprecedented – we’ve just not not seen that kind of reaction to our content for an incredibly long time. But we’re really proud of it. And it’s fine if not everybody likes it. It just speaks to the power of bold, creative, risk-taking campaign work. And that it can be extremely effective in conveying a message in this otherwise well-trodden narrative.”

Provide a platform

But not all sustainable advertising takes such a provocative approach; Sky has been working to raise awareness of eco-friendly alternatives and ultimately put more green products on the shelves through its Sky Zero Footprint Fund, inviting sustainable brands to compete for advertising airtime.

“We have brought eight brands to TV for the very first time and we’re putting another five new to TV brands (the 2023 winners) on air this year, supercharging their business and helping consumers access more sustainable choices,” says Fiona Ball, Group Director, Bigger Picture & Sustainability at Sky.

The 2021 winner, for example, was Here We Flo, a carbon-neutral period care company that won £1 million in media value. Sky Media says the prize fund helped the brand secure expanded distribution in Superdrug, alongside 158 percent increase in consumer consideration.


“We have learnt so much over the past three years about creating sustainable advertising that works and cuts through,” adds Fiona Ball. “Entertaining audiences is as important in sustainability as it is across the board in advertising.”

Educate and entertain

However, entertaining creative should not be used to mislead audiences on how sustainable the brand or product is in practice – and although greenwashing is a well-known concept among advertisers (though apparently not enough to stop some from doing it), efforts are also underway to teach young people to look out for misleading environmental claims.

Media Smart, an education non-profit that aims to help teenagers navigate the media and advertising they consume, recently launched a guide called ‘How to Spot Greenwashing’. The guide and accompanying video encourages young people to think about the green claims they see, such as brands selectively focusing on their green credentials but omitting less sustainable parts of the supply chain, or products purported to be “eco-friendly” when they were flown halfway across the world.


“Following research which shows 52 percent of teenagers are concerned about the lack of action on climate change, the campaign and guide helps young people understand the regulation around environmental claims in advertising and marketing,” says Rachel Barber-Mack, Executive Director of Media Smart UK. “We cover things like ‘green’ not always meaning that something is green, misleading ‘eco’ buzzwords and fact-checking what you read and see from other sources.”

Get your (green)house in order

And it is not just brands that risk the charge of hypocrisy in their climate-centric messaging; broadcasters also need to get their own house in order before the public can trust them on sustainability.

ITV has been assessing the sustainability of its advertising operations, both in the carbon emissions of its own media platform, and those of its advertising partners.

“For us, advertising is a big part of our revenue as a business,” says Jeremy Mathieu, Head of Sustainability at ITV. “And we know for the disclosures that we have to do in terms of the climate-related risks for the business, we know that as society transitions to a net zero economy, there may be changes to the advertising sector. We wanted to assess the risk that we possibly were exposed to. We’re looking at how we upskill the teams internally so that they’re understanding every part of the net zero conversation. So we’re trying to really look at the full picture of advertising and sustainability to make sure we position ourselves as a media platform for a net zero future.”

The broadcaster partnered with eBay to sponsor Love Island, aiming to pivot away from the show’s association with “fast fashion” to encourage more “pre-loved” purchases. According to ITV, 2.7 million young people are making more of an effort to shop sustainably as a result of the partnership.


The ambition then is to have each business doing its part to tackle carbon emissions together. Matt Bourn, co-author of ‘Sustainable Advertising’, describes his aim for the book and for the industry: “Every ad is made in a sustainable way, and every ad is promoting a sustainable product and/or service.”

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