What happens when you attempt to promote climate change awareness by
blowing up a few children? You get Splattergate, which is now the name
associated with the fallout from the 10:10 initiative’s ill-conceived
(and now canned) film which depicts children who show no interest in
cutting their carbon emissions exploding at the hand of a teacher who
is more eco-conscious.

And if you’re a brand which supported the 10:10 initiative producing
the much talked-about film, you get a harsh lesson about the risks
associated with greenwashing.

Splattergate, widely discussed over the past several days and even referrred to asa complete catastrophe for environmentalism“, has put brands like Sony, Kyocera Mita and O2 in a spotlight they’d probably prefer not to be in.

And it was all for a good cause too, of course. When faced with questions over its support for an organization that clearly went too far, Sony had a predictable excuse:

Sony has supported the 10:10 climate change campaign because we share its objective to reduce carbon emissions. However, we strongly condemn the “No Pressure” video which was conceived, produced and released by 10:10 entirely without the knowledge or involvement of Sony. The company considers the video to be ill-conceived and in extremely bad taste.

Not surprisingly, Sony is a sponsor of 10:10 no more. Its logo is no longer present on the 10:10 site, and a blog post written by a Sony employee has apparently been removed from the 10:10 site as well. Kyocera Mita is also no longer listed as a sponsor on the 10:10 site.

Of course, the damage has already been done, as Sony, Kyocera Mita and O2 will forever be associated with Splattergate.

Unfortunately, many brands make the same mistake Sony, Kyocera Mita and O2 made: they provide explicit endorsements to organizations and initiatives that have little to do with their businesses, and which they have little to no control over. While most individuals know that an advertisement doesn’t represent an endorsement, corporate sponsorships are endorsements, so there’s far more at stake.

This is not to say that corporations need to be amoral beasts. Few individuals are reasonably going to fault a brand for assisting individuals genuinely in need. But when it comes to supporting ’causes’ and their associated messages — not people directly — brands often take on unnecessary risk. Whether one believes a particular cause to be just is beside the point. Cause-oriented messaging is often heavily laced with political and social overtones that have the potential to create not just overwhelmingly positive reactions, but overwhelmingly negative ones as well.

Even more problematic: when brands let third parties control the messaging. After all, there’s a huge difference between, say, promoting your own efforts to become a more energy efficient company and lending your name and financial support to a group that you have no control over. In the case of Sony, for instance, the company’s desire “to reduce carbon emissions” isn’t a good enough justification for putting the Sony brand in the hands of individuals who were clearly incapable of predicting the very predictable reaction to a film containing exploding children.

As Andrew Revkin of The New York Times wrote, “I’d like to see the group’s sponsors, including Sony, figure out an upside to this effort.” The reality: there usually isn’t any upside to these kinds of sponsorships, but don’t expect brands to come to their senses any time soon.

Environmental initiatives are especially popular with brands, despite the fact that consumers are generally pretty hip to greenwashing, which Wikipedia succinctly describes as “the deceptive use of green PR or green marketing in order to promote a misleading perception that a company’s policies or products (such as goods or services) are environmentally friendly.

Many brands, of course, are trying to be friendlier to the environment. But big corporations will always have a hard time convincing some members of society that their economic interests can be aligned with environmental interests, and for some individuals, big corporations will always be the bad guys. The result: brands overcompensate by engaging in greenwashing. And a lot of the time, this comes in the form of support for organizations and initiatives like 10:10. Organizations and initiatives that, as Splattergate highlights, can take their causes and messages to an extreme that no brand would in its right mind support.

Unfortunately, this won’t stop any time soon. Brands seem far too content to clean up the splatter when their greenwashing efforts blow up on them.

Photo credit: pareeerica via Flickr.