Climate activists attend a protest

Climate activists attend a protest in Schleife, Germany on May 7, 2023.

(Photo: Frank Hammerschmidt/picture alliance via Getty Images)

UN Chief Calls for Global Ban on Fossil Fuel Advertising

"There is no longer any cover for agencies to say that they are doing the right thing when working with polluters," said one campaigner. "Everyone knows this is wrong, and everyone needs to act."

Despite the grim news that scientists on Wednesday reported last month as the hottest May on record globally, marking 12 straight months with record-breaking heat, climate advocates expressed optimism after United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres signaled what one called a "game-changing intervention," urging governments to ban advertisements by fossil fuel firms.

The demand is in line with prohibitions on advertising for other "products that harm human health—like tobacco," said Guterres.

"Some are now doing the same with fossil fuels," he added. "I urge every country to ban advertising from fossil fuel companies."

The secretary-general directly appealed to advertising and public relations companies and urged them to stop helping the fossil fuel industry in its quest to "shamelessly" greenwash their climate records and the harm their products do to the planet as well as to human health, with 1 in 5 deaths worldwide caused by air pollution.

"I call on these companies to stop acting as enablers to planetary destruction. Stop taking on new fossil fuel clients, from today, and set out plans to drop your existing ones," said Guterres. "Fossil fuels are not only poisoning our planet—they're toxic for your brand. Your sector is full of creative minds who are already mobilizing around this cause. They are gravitating towards companies that are fighting for our planet—not trashing it."

The secretary-general's comments called to mind the work of Clean Creatives, a project of Fossil Free Media, which calls on public relations, branding, and advertising agencies to sign a pledge stating that they will no longer work with the fossil fuel industry. More than 1,000 agencies have signed the pledge.

"U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres deserves recognition for saying so clearly that advertising and PR agencies should be cutting ties with fossil fuel polluters," said Duncan Meisel, executive director of Clean Creatives. "This is a turning point in the advertising and PR industry's relationship with climate change and fossil fuels. There is no longer any cover for agencies to say that they are doing the right thing when working with polluters. Everyone knows this is wrong, and everyone needs to act.

"We are living through the hottest years in human history, and Secretary Guterres' statements today show what a safe climate future could look like for the creative and PR industry," said Meisel.

The Global Strategic Communications Council pointed to several examples of high-profile advertisements that have promoted the notion that fossil fuel energy is not endangering the planet and that the industry is committed to protecting the planet from catastrophic heating. The American Petroleum Institute launched an eight-figure ad blitz earlier this year, aiming to "dismantle policy threats," and in April, energy company Aramco was announced as a sponsor of the 2026 men's World Cup and the 2027 women's World Cup.

"Fossil money is everywhere making the ambitious action on climate that the science says we need difficult or impossible—social scientists have shown this pattern—it's ubiquitous and it's devastating," said Timmons Roberts, executive director of the Climate Social Science Network. "The 'enablers' are a key part of this blockage—PR firms, social and legacy media, consultancies, law firms, and financial actors all play roles in the obstruction of our building a livable future, which soon has to be without fossil fuels.”

Guterres said that in addition to bans on fossil fuel advertising—which have been embraced in France and the Dutch city of Amsterdam, and proposed in Canada, Ireland, and Scotland—news media and tech companies should stop displaying the industry's ads.

"All of us can make a difference, by embracing clean technologies, phasing down fossil fuels in our own lives, and using our power as citizens to push for systemic change," said Guterres.

Jake Dubbins, co-chair of the Conscious Advertising Network, called the secretary-general's speech "a huge signal to the advertising industry."

"As the misinformation tactics of the tobacco industry and the threat of its products to human health became clear, advertising was restricted and then banned," said Dubbins. "The same will happen for fossil fuel advertising. The industry should see this as a tipping point, but one of opportunity."

"Will the industry fully embrace the opportunities of the transition and secure a livable future or will it risk the maintenance of the status quo at the cost to its people, its non-fossil fuel clients, and its reputation?" he said. "The time to lead is now."

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