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Watch Out For Greenwashing In Superbowl Ads, Experts Urge

Since environmental issues seem to strike a chord with American consumers, there’s an advertising phenomenon you may want to look out for: Greenwashing.

Green paint with brush.

Photo: velo_city

If you want to distinguish fact from fiction you see on labels and in commercials, it’s important to do your homework.

Even if football isn’t your favorite sport, you may tune in to the Superbowl this Sunday just to watch its famously captivating commercials.

Adam Duhachek is an associate professor of marketing at Indiana University’s Kelley School of business. One of the things he expects to see this year is green-themed advertising.

“This is the Superbowl for marketers as well, so companies will put their best foot forward. And if they are going to make the huge investment to advertise during the Superbowl, they’re going to roll out something,” Duhachek said.

“It’s definitely a sort of pitch that resonates well now given the recency of the Copenhagen talks and the collective awakening by a larger segment of America that this is actually a real issue,” he said. “I think that more Americans are attuned to that message.”

Since environmental issues seem to strike a chord with American consumers, there’s an advertising phenomenon you may want to look out for: Greenwashing.

Greenwashing describes how some companies take advantage of consumers’ desire to jump on the green bandwagon, so they bend the truth a bit –- or a lot –- when marketing their product.

It Takes Two

Ann Bastianelli is President of Anthology Consulting has devoted her career to studying trends in corporate and consumer behavior. She says that greenwashing is often a result of consumers being, well, lazy in their own efforts to be more environmentally friendly.

“One the one hand, consumers can get all up in arms and say the companies aren’t doing anything. On the other hand, the consumers aren’t doing anything either,” Bastianelli said. Most consumers have not changed their lives as a result of knowing anything new about environmentally conscious products.

Bastianelli said that some marketers take advantage of consumers’ reluctance to go out of their way to green-up their habits by labeling products to suggest that living sustainably is as simple as buying a bottle of shampoo.

“When they see something that says biodegradable or fragrance-free or no artificial colors or organic they don’t know why they buy it, it just feels good, there’s a halo around it,” she said.

Vote With Your Wallet

“Beware of the term natural because it still evades definition,” said Heidi Siegelbaum, a contributor to a prominent blog on greenwashing. “Tobacco is natural, too, but it’s probably not a great product.”

She says if you want to distinguish fact from fiction you see on labels and in commercials, it’s important to do your homework.

Seigelbaum recommends Sourcewatch.org. They keep back records of companies on what they are doing, who is on their board, and where they are making their investments.

“It kind of peels the onion layers off the onion so you don’t just have the company making its representation,” she said.

Although it’s important to be vigilant of companies’ practices, she also warns against being too severe.

“You want to encourage companies to do the right thing,” she said, “so you don’t want to be hyper-critical because then what happens is that they stop reporting altogether on their progress.”

Seigelbaum gives some tips on what to look for to be a more savvy consumer when watching all those dazzling Superbowl ads.

“Transparency in labeling, being able to get a hold of somebody that actually can answer your question, linking to other sites that are not part of the company,” she said. “Or consumers who really want to do a lot of digging, research the company. Vote with your wallet.”

Megan Meyer

Megan Meyer was in the company of foodies for most of her formative years. She spent all of her teens working at her town's natural food co-op in South Dakota, and later when she moved to Minneapolis, worked as a produce maven for the nation's longest running collectively-managed food co-op. In 2006, she had the distinct pleasure (and pain) of participating the vendanges, or grape harvest, in the Beaujolais terroire of France, where she developed her compulsion to snip off grape clusters wherever they may hang. In the spring of 2008, Megan interned on NPR's Science Desk in Washington, D.C., where she aided in the coverage of science, health and food policy stories. She joined Indiana Public Media in June, 2009.

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