Chapter 6

Sponsored Content: Fairy Tales, Science Fiction, and Other Make-Believe

“Sir, are you a henchmen?” – Jack Slater, incorruptible hero
“No, I only go as far as lackey.” – Benedict, evildoer for hire

As often as mainstream American journalism misses the forest for the trees when it comes to global warming, at least they (mostly) approach the subject from the fundamentally honest perspective of seeking out verifiable facts and independent experts. The same cannot be said of the similarly skilled storytellers who work in advertising and public relations. Those folks will smile on command and say anything for money.

That willingness makes ad firms and PR people vital tools for big polluters and other underhanded types. The endless Hollywood style campaign the fossil industry runs wouldn’t be possible without them.

Recall that Exxon and friends spend $1.4 billion ($1,400,000,000) annually on lobbying and advertising, $400,000,000 of which is specifically directed at climate denial. These are the people who cash those paychecks. But the overwhelming majority of PR work isn’t that overtly dastardly. In the generalized anxiety of the climate era, most of it is both subtler and sunnier.

Despite the denier campaign, by now most Americans are very aware that we have a climate problem,[1] and somewhere in the back of all those minds is a loose but moderately correct idea that many of the daily activities we undertake are the cause. There is serious money to be made in calming that anxiety so that business can continue as usual.

Sometimes these messages take the form of big companies and huge conglomerates assuring you that they’re doing their part to combat global warming, so please continue to enjoy these fine products and services. Sometimes they’re more personal, coming as advertising for supposedly green products you can buy or individual reforms that you (Yes, you!) can undertake.

What all of these sales pitches have in common is that they are aimed squarely and exclusively at making you feel better in the short term. Solving the long term problems that are bothering you in the first place isn’t on the agenda. So while this stuff isn’t (always) as nakedly dishonest as direct fossil industry propaganda, it is still showing some ass and misleading its audience.

At a moment when immediate overhauls are needed, messages that encourage delay by lulling people into a false sense of normalized passivity are extremely harmful and need to be understood as such.

 

The Purse Strings of Giants

“That is one big pile of shit.” – Dr. Ian Malcolm, perceptive observer and shameless flirt

In the United States, the only major media outlets with national audiences are the network TV news, a handful of prominent newspapers and magazines, and, to a lesser extent, those gibbering numbskulls on NPR and the cable news channels. These outlets have assigned themselves a vaunted place in the American firmament: following the President around, memorializing tragedies, and furrowing their brows with gravitas, dignitude, and seriousity no matter the occasion. They rub elbows with the wealthiest and most powerful people in the country, get paid quite handsomely for doing so, and take themselves very seriously as heralds and interpreters of the great events of the day.

As important and influential as these people are, however, in terms of audience measurements and straight dollar figures they are a penny ante sideshow to America’s truly dominant media form: advertising. The numbers are undeniable.

The largest audience in all of American journalism watches the nightly news on ABC, CBS, or NBC. Combined, the three broadcast networks have an average collective viewership of 23 million people every evening.[2] (All of cable news averages less than 4 million.)[3] But the advertising revenue derived from that giant audience is chump change when stacked next to the marketing budgets of some of America’s least (currently) sustainable industries and companies.

For example, Ford, General Motors, and other auto giants spend over $14 billion ($14,300,000,000) on advertising in the United States each year,[4] a heaping portion of which goes to broadcast network television across every major category of programming, from football to soap operas to primetime hits. The malnourished runt of that litter is the evening news broadcasts.

They’ve been on seven days a week going all the way back to Walter Cronkite’s era, but their combined viewership pales in comparison to those of sports, sitcoms, reality TV, game shows, and perky three hour morning programs that feature celebrity guests and regular weather updates. That’s where most of the audience is, so that’s where most of the spending goes, and the gap is huge.

Altogether, the three network evening news programs bring in a seemingly impressive $500 million ($500,000,000) per year.[5] Not bad, right? Looks pretty prosperous. Except that the Ford Motor Company alone spends $700 million ($700,000,000) just on network TV.[6] In other words, Ford could buy every ad slot on every network news broadcast and still have a couple hundred million leftover in their annual network TV budget. And they’re just one firm in one industry.

Not much money for journalism these days.

Bluntly, only a small fraction of Americans watch, read, or listen to national journalism of any kind. But everyone sees or hears ads from national advertisers. Car manufacturers, credit card companies, retail giants, airlines, tech behemoths, pharmaceutical firms, beer, food, and soft drink producers, these are the true giants of American media, the companies whose stories and messages reach far more people than all the national journalists in America combined.

Across their full-spectrum array of ads in every medium, the heavyweight advertising champions have one unified message when it comes to climate: everything is fine. Yeah, we’ve heard there’s a problem; that’s why we had our tireless engineers come up with green this and sustainable that, so you can go right ahead and buy one of our wares and not feel the least bit guilty about it.

Ford has a thing they call “Eco-Boost”, which amounts to little more than some engine tweaks and a green decal they slap on the side of their disastrously inefficient (but profitably high margin) trucks and SUVs. It is pure marketing bullshit, designed to assuage any environmental concerns someone might have about using a 4,500lb truck to get to work, drop off the kids, and accomplish other routine tasks that don’t require a 4,500lb truck.

United Airlines painted the phrase “eco-skies” on the side of a 737 and flew it from Chicago to Los Angeles, bragging about how it was “the most eco-friendly commercial flight of its kind in the history of aviation”,[7] an accolade they gave themselves because they recycled some paper cups and partially powered the engines with biofuels.* And nevermind that neither United nor any other airline has an even remotely feasible plan to cut pollution within the decidedly short time frame we have left.

(*Biofuels have their own problems, but that’s another topic.)

Sticking the word ‘eco’ on very dirty things to distract people from just how dirty they are is called ‘greenwashing’; and it is the favorite tactic of large advertisers. Other forms it takes include: putting words like ‘recyclable’ and ‘biodegradable’ everywhere from websites to packaging, featuring heroic footage of windmills and solar panels in commercials, and adding images of trees, leaves, and other naturally green things to every product imaginable.

Whether you are aware of it or not, you have undoubtedly already seen greenwashing in action. For instance, if you happened to be one of the hundred million or so people who watched the 2019 Super Bowl (a humdrum, low scoring affair), you saw one of the most widely viewed examples of greenwashing ever. Budweiser ran a 60-second spot (which cost over $10 million just to broadcast)[8] showing a dog riding on a horse drawn wagon (filled with beer, of course). As this all natural avatar of 19th Century Americana rolls through a bucolic wheat field, the camera pulls back to reveal sleek, towering 21st Century wind turbines. Right when a breathy cover of Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ In The Wind” reaches its crescendo, the commercial concludes with text: “NOW BREWED WITH WIND POWER”.[9]

The fine print at the bottom of the screen could only hint at how misleading that stirring scene really was, “Renewable Electricity From Wind Power Is One Type of Energy We Use to Brew. Learn More At Budweiser.com”. Of course, the overwhelming majority of people who saw that ad never went to Budweiser.com, and of those that did, even fewer clicked around enough to see the whole thing revealed as sleight of hand. Budweiser doesn’t actually power its breweries with electricity from wind turbines, it merely bought some electric wind credits. Plus, electricity is only part of the energy they use to brew, the “heat” still comes from fossil fuels. And, oh by the way, brewing is only a tiny part of the energy Budweiser uses; shipping, packaging, and raw materials aren’t included in their brag statement.[10] So saying that Bud is “NOW BREWED WITH WIND POWER” is a hell of a stretch.

Nevertheless, Budweiser now puts a “100% Wind Power” label on its bottles and cans.[11] This is textbook greenwashing: do something that’s good but woefully inadequate, pretend it’s a lot more important than it really is, then spend gobs of money to convince the public that buying your product is environmentally friendly.

Ordinary people are effectively powerless in the face of this kind of slick, big dollar dishonesty. Sure, some teensy fraction of a percent will not only read the fine print but also be able to pick through the weasel words and vague phrasing and figure out just what Budweiser is actually saying. But the few who make it that far have no means of spreading the word that even remotely compares to a Super Bowl ad, to say nothing of all the other high dollar marketing methods at Budweiser’s disposal.

Even nationally prominent journalists at the largest platforms can’t compete with messaging of that magnitude. InBev, the global conglomerate that owns Budweiser, spends $1.5 billion (that’s $1,500,000,000, three times the combined evening news revenue[12]) on US advertising every year, and none of the network news divisions are going to greenlight a story that carefully lays out why one of their parent network’s biggest advertisers is full of it. And even if they did broadcast such a story, it would run only once, to an audience of a few million; meanwhile, ads and labels touting “BREWED WITH WIND POWER” are seen by over a hundred million people again and again and again until the idea has lodged itself deep in their minds.

Like much else when it comes to climate and the media, the problem is structural, not conspiratorial. There isn’t some evil, cigar chomping rich guy who makes threatening phone calls to network news desks and kills stories that expose corporate greenwashing. There doesn’t have to be. At the level of major advertisers like Ford, United, and InBev, the biggest national news outlets are simply irrelevant, too small to even be worth bullying.

And that’s before you get to perhaps the greatest natural advantage greenwashers have. Climate bullshit, like all other forms of shit, takes a lot longer to clean up than it does to produce.

 

Mouse Poop and the Gish Gallop

“Walt Disney was an outspoken anti-Semite, so, Disney, ABC, ESPN, Touchstone, these would all be things to avoid.” – Brian the Dog, self medicating alcoholic whose likeness and copyright were later purchased by Disney

When a company the size of InBev pays copywriters and PR specialists to craft high-grade, artisinal bullshit like a transparently implausible Super Bowl commercial, what they’re really doing is making a bet. They’re betting that most people won’t have the energy or the attention span to sift through their greenwashed pile of misleading claims, deliberate omissions, and outright falsehoods. And they’re usually right for the simple reason that making something up takes a lot less time than explaining why something is made up.[13]

Budweiser says: we brew with wind power. It’s simple, clear, and short. Some unlucky mensch tasked with picking apart that steaming pile has to get into all kinds of expansive and complicating concepts: differing energy types, lifecycle analysis, the fungibility of energy purchases and emissions credits, plus all of the other complex activities that Budweiser arbitrarily decided not to include. It’s like trying to convince people the Moon isn’t made of green cheese. It obviously isn’t, but to prove it you need textbooks about orbital mechanics and the history of the solar system while the other guy can just say, “Yes, it is” over and over again.

This tactic of spewing out arguments that are essentially false but too time consuming to pin down and refute is so old and reliable that there’s actually a term for it: the “Gish Gallop”. It’s named after a guy who used to get into debates with scientists about whether or not the Earth really is billions of years old. While they patiently explained actual evidence, he would rapidly spout pseudoscienctific mumbo-jumbo that sounded coherent to people who hadn’t given it much thought.[14] Gish galloping is how big companies greenwash their businesses.

Marketing firms and PR departments put out an incomprehensible number of advertisements, commercials, reports, and press releases that tout this or that environmental reform (switching to renewable power, conserving water, recycling paper and plastic, etcetera). These claims are superficially believable, but there are so many of them coming from so many different companies that America’s shriveled journalism community can’t hope to contend. So all but a tiny few roll into the public sphere with no independent evaluation or context.

This relentless flow of uncontested greenwashing leaves the public with the oxymoronic impression that A) every major American company is doing its part while B) the overall climate situation continues to get worse. It doesn’t make any sense if you stop to think about it – both can’t be true – but who’s got the time for that?

To see this dishonesty in action, look no further than the happiest company on Earth, America’s media megabehemoth, The Walt Disney Corporation. Disney is primarily known for making movies and TV shows, but they long ago discovered that the real money isn’t in creating beloved characters and stories, it’s in owning beloved characters and stories.[15] Most of their business is offering people ways to express that love through toys, trinkets, stuffed animals, food, drinks, fancy vacations, jewelry . . . their product catalog is functionally infinite and growing at all times. Disney has even expanded into banking, so you can now pay for all of your Disney tickets and merchandise on a Disney credit card.[16]

In Disney’s public communications all of that is presented as happy and bright and shiny and fun, but buried down in the bowels of their website, where only the most dedicated fans will ever look, is Disney’s “Corporate Social Responsibility” (<- LOL!) report.[17] Scroll to the bottom of that document, past the copyrighted characters and the attractive graphics that tout the company as being “on target” or already having achieved their goals, and you will find a table, a table that is filled with lies.

Because bullshit is harder to debunk than to deploy, it is necessary to peel this apart layer by layer to see not only how dishonest Disney is being, but how flagrant they are about it. Behold: Disney’s House of Carbon Lies. (My apologies for the text heavy illustration, wasn’t my choice. Take it up with the mouse.)

The many ways Disney faked its carbon numbers.

Disney fudges their credits up and their emissions down. They get basic math wrong (though always in their favor). And sometimes they don’t even bother, simply leaving blank spaces where their make-believe data is supposed to go.

What’s really telling, however, is that Disney didn’t even bother to forge plausible numbers. The U.S. economy averaged $3,059 of GDP per ton of CO2 pollution in 2017.[18] According to Disney’s greenwashed “Corporate Social Responsibility” report, that same year the Walt Disney Corporation brought in $56,262 per ton of CO2, over eighteen times more efficient than the US as a whole. It’s one thing to cheat a little, it’s quite another to make up a completely impossible figure.

This kind of blatant sloppiness can only come from an institutional feeling of total invincibility. No one with even a significant fraction of Disney’s reach is ever going to call out their dishonesty, so why waste the PR people’s time crafting believable lies? Disney owns one of America’s three climate neglecting networks and advertises heavily on the other two. So even if some crusading journalist made it their mission to put Disney’s shit in the street, what chance would a few dry stories have against reams of commercials filled with delighted children and breathtaking shots of Mickey waving from the top of Epcot Center?

The kicker is that the carbon credits upon which Disney rests its house of climate lies are their own separate category of baseless nonsense. Take one more look at that data table of theirs. The bottom line is total energy used, and it rises from year to year in direct correlation with Disney’s (pre-credit) emissions, up 7% in just two years. At that rate, Disney’s total energy consumption (and carbon pollution) will double in less time than has passed since they released Toy Story 2 in 2000.

That’s the real and ultimate problem: more fossil energy putting more carbon into the atmosphere. And all the gimmicky numbers in the world can’t change the fact that Disney is polluting more every year.

The only way they can make that damning number look like it’s going down is by invoking an ever increasing number of offsetting carbon credits. Unfortunately, the Peruvian forest from which Disney claims almost all of its credits is being slashed and burned.[19] Disney’s magic numbers come from the theoretical notion that the deforestation would be happening faster without their efforts.

Stripped of window dressing, all of their greenwashed claims rest on that lone idea: that paying a few million dollars to slow one forest’s demise compensates for all of the plastic toys, all the cruise ship engines, all the plane flights, and all the other branded businesses that bring in seventy billion dollars per year. And if that seems like a convoluted accountant’s trick, that’s because it is.

 

Carbon Offsets, Electric Cars, and Other Spreadsheet Environmentalism

“The world is made for people who aren’t cursed with self awareness.” – Annie Savoy, educator of fools

It’s not a bad thing that Disney is putting some money into preventing deforestation. Nor is it a bad thing that InBev is dropping a little cash on renewable power. More needs to be spent on both if we’re to have any chance of stabilizing the climate. But piecemeal charity isn’t going to get us there, especially coming from large conglomerates that are primarily interested in looking good for annual reports and Super Bowl viewers.

The first problem is that activities like renewable power and forest preservation need regular, systematic funding. Sure, you can pay residents of a tropical country to not burn down a rainforest, but what about next year? And what about the next generation? Those forests need to be preserved permanently, not just this quarter or this fiscal year. Is Disney’s CEO in 2050 going to want to keep spending money on a forest whose carbon credits were banked back when he was still a snot nosed undergrad?

More fundamentally, buying offsets simply does not reduce the pollution caused by these enormously profitable businesses.[20] They and every other company that wants kudos for paying for credits are operating under an outdated and badly compromised theory. Back in the 90s, when carbon credits were first gaining traction, it was a nice idea. Reduce pollution in the short term while giving rich companies and countries time to clean up their acts. But reality has been cruel to that prettified notion.

The basic concept behind credits is straightforward. By paying someone else not to pollute, you reduce the overall level of pollution, thereby creating space for your (more economically valuable) pollution. Deforestation is the A1 example of this because some farmer in a poor country who cuts down an acre of old growth rainforest to earn fifty bucks is putting as much carbon into the air as thousands upon thousands of dollars worth of Mickey dolls and aluminum beer cans.

So you toss the farmer some cash, the trees stay in the ground, and – presto abracadabra – you’ve just prevented enough pollution to offset the damage from whatever it is you’re doing. That’s the mechanism behind what is usually called ‘cap and trade’. Total annual pollution is capped at an ever reducing level, polluting businesses buy, sell, and trade pollution permits at ever increasing values, and eventually we reach that zero pollution sustainable economy that everyone but Exxon wants.

The problem is that a couple of decades of actually trying this has resulted in complete failure.[21] Carbon offset schemes rely on precise accounting of inherently imprecise numbers and scrupulously honest self reporting of activities that are impossible to verify or regulate. Naturally, the world’s bottomless supply of self-dealing executives, shifty lawyers, and sleazebag MBAs swiftly carved these trusting systems to shreds while an inexhaustible legion of PR flaks ran interference.

There are ample options for those wishing to game cap and trade: claiming credit for improvements that were going to happen anyway, overestimating baseline pollution or deforestation, and good ‘ole fashioned cheating (everything from double counting to outright fraud). In one famous example, carbon credits were used to help pay for new coal plants on the theory that other models could’ve been even dirtier.[22] Countries and companies have been so effective at exploiting these systems that the European Union has declared them all unworkable and won’t accept internationally traded credits after 2020.[23]

Buying offsets is how Disney can say their overall pollution output is down when it’s actually up (and rising annually). Trading credits is how InBev can claim that Budweiser comes from renewable power when there isn’t a windfarm anywhere near their breweries. These kinds of spreadsheet environmentalism allow potshot climate reforms to seem like meaningful action, and they’re not limited to big companies.

Chances are you’ve been offered all sorts of personal greenwashing opportunities. Sometimes this takes the form of ticking a box at the end of an on-line purchase. Click here and we’ll spend some of your dollars planting a tree, buying renewable power, or some other pleasant sounding thing. Other firms make it their entire business to sell carbon offsets to the public. Feeling bad about that long flight you took or all the unneeded crap you bought over the holidays? Spend your way to peace of mind by paying someone else to balance out the carbon you ordered into the air.

Like the sprawling, legalistic schemes used by big business, however, assuming that your money does what you’re being told it’s doing is an exercise in willful ignorance. Even if the offer is ethically solid and methodologically sound (no sure thing*), you have no way of knowing if your money is doing something that wouldn’t have been done anyway. (Cap and trade people call this ‘additionality’, it is both necessary and all but impossible to verify.) Consumer carbon offsets are a shell game to hide blame, and, like a regular shell game, when it’s over the only thing you know for sure is that your wallet is lighter.

(*Buying carbon credits that don’t rip you off requires a lot of due diligence to sort through the bullshit.[24] Or you could skip that hassle and just donate to ActBlue.)

And those direct carbon emission pitches don’t encompass all the other small bore personal reforms that are touted in the media and then advertised mercilessly. Ditching straws and plastic bags, eating local organic food, and recycling more than you throw away can all be good things, but they are also hopelessly, hilariously inadequate to the task at hand. And that goes for the mother of all symbolic greenery as well: driving an electric car.

Yes, it is better if your particular vehicle doesn’t have a tail pipe (much better, actually). But does your electricity come from wind, solar, or another renewable? And even if it does, do you know how much energy even the most efficient car wastes when it carries a lone person on a round trip commute every day? Most importantly for the atmosphere as a whole, do you have a good grasp on the mindblowing scale of what it would take to build and power an all electric vehicle fleet if we kept our current transportation patterns?[25]

Those and other impolite questions never get mentioned in sales pitches for electric cars and other green(ish) products and services. But the atmosphere doesn’t differentiate between you and your neighbor, or Disney and InBev, or the United States and the rest of the world; which means that no one person or company (even one as rich, famous, and powerful as Disney) can take meaningful climate action on their own. That is the lie at the heart of all green advertising and corporate PR.

Greenwashed commercials, reports, press releases, and other paid content create and maintain the fiction that a sustainable America looks exactly like the one we have now except with a couple of electric cars in every driveway, bigger recycling bins by the curb, and solar panels on every McMansion. But the math (like Disney’s) simply doesn’t work.

For pollution to go down in time to stabilize the climate, energy use has to go down – fast. And for energy use to go down fast, we need a lot more than credits, offsets, and other guilt palliatives.

That said, personally reducing your energy use isn’t meaningless; in fact, it’s great! (Remember: work less, eat better, play more.) It just isn’t enough. To understand why, you’ve got to peer into your gas tank, think about what’s behind your thermostat, and impress your friends by taking a good, hard look at all the ways modern American life uses energy.

 

Energy begins in the shower, and so does the next chapter. Everybody get naked! Continue to Chapter 7 – Why Your Phone Battery Is Always Low: Energy In Modern Life

Endnotes for Chapter 6:

[1 – https://www.pewresearch.org/science/2016/10/04/the-politics-of-climate/]
[2 – https://www.pewresearch.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/8/2018/07/State-of-the-News-Media_2017-Archive.pdf, p. 38]
[3 – ibid, p. 7]
[4 – Ad Age 200 Leading Advertisers Fact Pack 2018, p. 26]
[5 – https://www.journalism.org/fact-sheet/network-news/, last retrieved on 10 Jan 2020]
[6 – Ad Age 200 Leading Advertisers Fact Pack 2018, p. 24]
[7 – https://hub.united.com/united-most-eco-friendly–flight-2638700079.html]
[8 -https://www.cnbc.com/2019/01/30/how-much-it-costs-to-air-a-commercial-during-super-bowl-liii.html]
[9 – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WJR8ZC48khc]
[10 – https://www.insidesources.com/budweiser-the-beer-made-from-hops-and-wind-maybe/]
[11 – https://www.reuters.com/article/us-environment-budweiser/green-logo-for-budweiser-as-brewer-taps-into-u-s-wind-power-idUSKBN1FD0D6]
[12 – Ad Age 200 Leading Advertisers Fact Pack 2018, p. 7]
[13 -https://www.nature.com/news/take-the-time-and-effort-to-correct-misinformation-1.21106]
[14 – http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/debating/globetrotters.html]
[15 – Rigged: How Globalization and the Rules of the Modern Economy Were Structured to Make the Rich Richer by Dean Baker, Center for Economic and Policy Research, 2016, Chapter 5. You can read the whole book for free at https://deanbaker.net/books/rigged.htm. Not recommended for people who already have high blood pressure, though.]
[16 – https://disneyrewards.com/disney-premier-credit-card-ph/, last retrieved on 10 Jan 2020]
[17 -https://www.thewaltdisneycompany.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/FY18-CSR-Update.pdf]
[18 – https://www.bea.gov/system/files/2018-03/gdp4q17_3rd.pdf, p. 2 gives 2017 US GDP as $19,754.1 Billion. https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/inventory-us-greenhouse-gas-emissions-and-sinks (last retrieved 10 Jan 2020) gives 2017 US emissions in CO2 ton equivalents as $6,456.7 Million. Math time!: $19,754.1 Billion / 6,456.7 Million = $3,059 dollars of GDP per ton of CO2.]
[19 – https://www.conservation.org/stories/implementing-forest-conservation-in-perus-alto-mayo-region, Disney claims they’ve reduced baseline deforestation by 75%, which means, yes, it’s still being deforested.]
[20 -https://theconversation.com/carbon-offsets-can-do-more-environmental-harm-than-good-26593]
[21 – https://features.propublica.org/brazil-carbon-offsets/inconvenient-truth-carbon-credits-dont-work-deforestation-redd-acre-cambodia/]
[22 – https://www.reuters.com/article/us-india-carbon-coal/carbon-credits-for-india-coal-power-plant-stoke-criticism-idUSTRE76B1XI20110712]
[23-https://insideclimatenews.org/news/19042017/cabon-emissions-credits-paris-climate-agreement]
[24 – https://www.nrdc.org/stories/should-you-buy-carbon-offsets]
[25- https://www.citylab.com/transportation/2019/09/electric-vehicle-climate-carbon-emissions-impact-solution/598453/]