UK advertising watchdog turns to AI to help police ‘dodgy’ green claims
The UK’s advertising watchdog will use artificial intelligence tools to boost the number of ads it scrutinises, in a crackdown on “dodgy claims” about environmental issues that are expected to proliferate due to the rise of generative AI.
Advertising regulators around the world have to tackle “the scale, the volume and the pace of change” wrought by targeted and AI-generated marketing, according to Guy Parker, chief executive of the Advertising Standards Authority.
Automated tools could amplify unverified marketing buzzwords, raising some “tricky questions about where accountability lies”, said Parker in an interview with the Financial Times. Advertisers “can’t abdicate responsibility by saying, sorry, the AI did that”, he warned.
Although a decision on a promotion will ultimately be made by humans, the ASA plans to scan 10mn adverts for wrongdoing in 2024, using its own AI tool, compared to 3mn last year and just tens of thousands in 2022.
Parker’s comments come at a time artificial intelligence is already changing marketing. Google has started using AI to create adverts on its search page based on a company’s website and keywords it deems relevant. WPP, the London-listed advertising group, plans to spend £250mn on AI development this year.
A particular risk was that this type of tool could draw on popular phrases to create “dodgy claims” on the environment, Parker said.
The ASA, which is independent of the UK government and primarily funded by an industry levy, has a data and science budget worth about five per cent of its £11mn financing for 2024.
It will check that phrases like “recyclable”, “compostable” and “carbon neutral” come with sufficient context and caveats attached, while also scanning for ads that promote activities such as gambling and vaping to minors.
Google said it was “committed to applying generative AI responsibly”, with each ad subject to “strict” policies. Advertisers have to approve ads created using generative AI before these are shown to consumers.
In the past year, the ASA has pivoted to an aggressive clampdown on green ads by polluters including Shell, Equinor and Lufthansa. Earlier this week, it banned emissions claims made by carmakers BMW and MG as well as claims on pollution from London’s transport authorities.
Unlike tobacco or gambling, there are few restrictions on ads by big polluters, so the regulator’s strategy has typically focused on instances of misleading by omission.
In December, for example, the ASA took issue with a suggestion by Norway’s Equinor that wind farms, oil and gas, and carbon capture play a balanced role in its energy mix, when most of the company’s revenues still comes from oil and gas.
One claim that raises alarm bells is “carbon neutral”. Companies that use carbon offsets to justify this type of green claim are “kind of cheating” in the eyes of consumers, Parker said. The ASA has recently barred claims by drinks company BrewDog and shirts retailer Charles Tyrwhitt to be “carbon negative” or “carbon neutral”.
“People are confused, and they’re not very happy when they find out that carbon neutral can be substantially based on carbon offsetting”, said Parker.
Offsets, theoretically representing one tonne of carbon emissions removed from the atmosphere, have come under fire for the techniques used to verify the emissions claims. EU lawmakers last month approved a ban on some corporate marketing claims reliant on carbon credits.
Companies should use precise language and appropriate caveats, Parker said. “We don’t see it as a binary choice between greenwashing and greenhushing,” he said.
In reference to recent claims made by Lufthansa and other airlines based on offsets and cleaner fuel, he noted: “At the moment, I cannot imagine how a major airline could justify ‘sustainable’ flying.”
Under Parker’s watch as chief executive since 2009, the ASA has won high-profile battles over accuracy and fairness in advertising, including against government bodies like the Home Office and consumer goods companies such as Danone and Coca-Cola.
The ASA decisions are typically heavily contested. Campaigners argue for example that it has not gone far enough on tackling greenwashing, in part because it has to rely on government regulators such as the Financial Conduct Authority to enforce its decisions, leading to similar versions of banned ads continuing to appear in public.
In contrast, Geraint Lloyd-Taylor, a partner at London-based law firm Lewis Silkin, argued the ASA’s approach was “sometimes too extreme” and could discourage clean energy investments in the UK because of a sense companies had to “achieve perfection” before they could promote their green credentials in marketing.
“Society changes, we’ve got a culture war, we’ve got changing attitudes on the environment . . . and we have to intermediate,” said Parker.
He called for companies generally to be more “humble” in the claims they make in advertising.
Consumers were “a bit suspicious of the big bold, ‘good for the planet’ type claims. They smell greenwashing when they see those claims.”
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