Helen Brain, comms strategy director at Iris, looks back at some key milestones in the regulation of advertising in the UK. The next stage of regulation is climate legislation, here’s how marketers can get a head start.

Regulation of advertising is nothing new. Legislation around climate is still relatively young in the advertising industry and exists primarily in the shape of Green Claims Guides, but it's safe to assume that regulation of the advertising of high carbon products is only going to increase.

Regulation could take many forms, getting ahead of it is now a key challenge and opportunity for marketers. So, what can brands do? 

  • Invest in knowledge: Knowing whether your products are high carbon or not is now vital for marketers. This will enable you to understand which ones are most at threat from regulation, and therefore plan for phasing out.
  • Bring in the experts: Listen to the experts, invest in governance structures and in people who can hold you to account before you speak. For instance, Vodafone Group and Nestlé have set up panels of experts to double-check environmental claims before they appear in marketing.
  • Commit to innovation: Make a plan for future growth that includes NPD to replace any products that may face regulation, and plan to have these new products on shelves sooner rather than later to not only get ahead of regulation, but build leadership credentials and therefore brand value.

To see where we’re heading, it is useful to look at how advertising has been regulated for other industries such as smoking, alcohol, gambling and high fat, salt and sugar (HFSS) and acknowledge that there are two conditions that were met before legislation was implemented: 

  1. There is a clear and measurable link between consumption of the product and negative social impact. 
  2. There is a clear and measurable link between advertising of the product, and increased consumption of it. 

In 1962, the Royal College of Physicians recognised the link between smoking and health costs, and called for a smoking advertising ban due to the proven link between consumption and lung cancer, with the UK government also acknowledging the positive impact of advertising on smoking consumption. 

Harmful alcohol use causes 3 million global deaths annually and studies likewise show that alcohol marketing boosts consumption. The high fat, salt, sugar (HFSS) sector faces regulation because high sugar intake contributes to obesity in 25% of English adults, and there is clear evidence that price promotions in particular increase consumption of HFSS goods, and finally, we know that problem gambling affects many people, with the gambling sector already recognizing its responsibility in responsible communication.

A brief history of regulation that led to a ban or restricted advertising

Government agencies, trade bodies, and advertising bodies such as the ASA and Ofcom are the primary enforcers of advertising regulations in the UK. These bodies oversee alcohol broadcast rules, the 9pm watershed for HFSS TV ads, and gambling rules. They contribute guidelines and ensure businesses adhere to industry codes. 

While debates persist on the efficacy of advertising regulations, their impact on the industry is undeniable, with regulations leading to product bans, including:

  • the 2002 ban on sales of menthol cigarettes
  • messaging guidelines – like tobacco packaging requiring picture warnings since 2008
  • a blanket ban on tobacco ads across all media, including event sponsorships.
  • inclusion of begambleaware.org in gambling ads – as well as extending restrictions on who can be targeted.
  • space and time-based limits include a 9pm TV ad restriction for gambling and HFSS, withdrawal of gaming machine ads from betting shop windows, restricted placement of HFSS products in stores
  • the recent prohibition of BOGOF (buy one get one free) deals for HFSS products

Expect regulation for high carbon products

The possibilities for regulation are endless and tailored to each category. So, is more legislation likely to come for high carbon products? I think it is, especially as we’ve already met the two conditions for increased regulation. 

  1. There is a clear and measurable link between consumption of high carbon products and negative social impacts. 

The Lancet reports that “the science is unequivocal; a global increase of 1.5°C above the pre-industrial average and the continued loss of biodiversity risk catastrophic harm to health that will be impossible to reverse.”

In the UK poor air quality is the largest environmental risk to public health, with long-term exposure to air pollution causing chronic conditions such as cardiovascular and respiratory diseases as well as lung cancer. Climate change also affects mental health as people suffer both the worry of what might happen (eco-anxiety) and of what is happening (loss of family, homes, community, safety). Plus changes in temperature and rainfall alter the distribution and behaviour of insects and other species leading to changes in infectious diseases such as Lyme disease, and rising temperatures lead to increases in heat-related deaths and illnesses, with floods and fires leading to death and population displacement at the same time.

  1. There is a clear and measurable link between advertising of the product, and increased consumption of it. 
“Advertising works. It contributes to increased product sales, and positive brand perceptions. If it didn't we’d all be out of a job.” 

For further proof please see the IPA, Effies, Ehrenberg Bass, Kotler, WARC...

More legislation and regulation isn't something that may happen in the future. It's already here. 

This year France became the first European country to ban fossil fuel adverts, something Amsterdam has already done (where it also includes aviation companies) and the deputy mayor in Sydney has suggested that they “should not accept sponsorships from companies whose main business is the extraction or sale of coal, oil and gas.” Meanwhile, in the UK, the Green Party has said it wants to ban ads that promote polluting goods and services.

The Green Claims Code already regulates communications that contain sustainability messaging, plus media owners like the Guardian banned fossil fuel ads back in 2020, and banned gambling ads in 2023, effectively self-regulating. 

We're going to see more activity in this space, including: 

Increased innovation. 

Brands are already stepping up and innovating to create products that are better for people and less harmful to society e.g. through circularity, use of waste as a source material, cutting carbon in the supply chain, investment in citizen climate education, and building brand trust via transparency. 

Brands must consider the ‘right to repair’ laws, which have come into action in several markets around the world, with implications for sectors like consumer tech. 

The brands who win in the future will be the ones who invest heavily in this type of innovation, getting ahead of increasing demand from customers, increasing legislation from governments and increasing supply chain challenges arising from damaged ecosystems. 

More pressure on the government from business. 

When Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced the delay on the ban on sales of new petrol and diesel cars the government saw a backlash not only from furious citizens, climate experts and NGOs, but also the car and energy industries with the Chair of Ford UK pointing out that “our business needs three things from the UK government, ambition, commitment, and consistency... A relaxation of 2030 would undermine all three”.

In addition, in 2023 companies representing over $1trn in global revenues also expressed concerns over climate change’s impact on their business. In an open letter pleading with global leaders to reduce emissions and the use of fossil fuels in line with the Paris Agreement, they stated: “Our businesses are feeling the impacts and cost of increasing extreme weather events resulting from climate change. We recognize the need to transition in a way that safeguards our future collective prosperity on a liveable planet.” 

Plus, independent organisations like Greenpeace, Brandalism, Ban Fossil Fuel Ads, WWF, and the European Citizens Initiative amongst others are asking for bans on fossil fuel advertising worldwide. 

More regulations around messaging.

We’ve already seen clarification around carbon-neutral language, and it's likely that we will see increased guidance around imagery. Can we imagine a day when a ‘Please consume responsibly’ message becomes mandatory for certain ads? 

The announcement by the ASA in the UK that the most polluting industries will face greater scrutiny of their communications, with ads that refer to lower-carbon activities without including information about a company’s overall environmental impact facing review by the regulator. 

Most recently, the ASA banned a Toyota ad because they felt it presented and condoned the use of vehicles in a “manner that disregarded their impact on nature and the environment”. They went on to tell Toyota to “ensure their future marketing communications contained nothing that was likely to encourage irresponsible behaviour towards the environment." 

This is moving from greenwashing guidance that regulates specific language, toward guidance on what ‘responsible consumption’ looks like behaviourally.

Further down the line might we see regulations around placement and targeting? Will we protect upcoming generations from excessive consumption by i.e. banning shopping days like Prime or Black Friday, in the same way ‘buy one get one free’ (BOGOF) deals now are for HFSS? 

Adapting to regulation and consumer demand will increasingly define brand success in a climate-conscious era, so it's time to start thinking ahead.