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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 as "a 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.

Patricio Robles

Published 6 October, 2010 by Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles is a tech reporter at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter.

2380 more posts from this author

Comments (5)

Ciaran Norris

Ciaran Norris, Chief Digital Officer at Mindshare

I agree with you to a point, but fear that there is a (rather on-trend) cynicism at play here too (which is, I'll admit, often healthy)

I should start by saying that the first I had head of this issue was when I read about it here. Maybe it's because I've moved to Ireland, maybe it's because I've been busy, but this had not impinged on my consciousness one iota. And that's the point.

Obviously this was a clusterf*** of epic proportions, but what will the long-termk damage be? We'll never know as all the brands have simply run away, and ditched any endorsement. In many ways, this reminds me of the modern trend for apologising for everything, and not accepting the fact that sometimes people make mistakes (even if they are, as in this case, utterly idiotic ones).

You're right that people are wise to greewashing, and that companies can do a lot more by promoting their own efforts to improve themselves (M&S' Plan A for example). But suggesting, as you seem to be, that brands should simply avoid any and all endorsements that have any sort of risk attached to them, and where they don't have total control, is, IMO, one that would make brands even more bland than they already are, and reinforce the assumption that the public aren't able to distinguish between genuine malevolence and honest, if stupid, mistakes.

almost 6 years ago

Ciaran Norris

Ciaran Norris, Chief Digital Officer at Mindshare

All that said, I've just watched the video. Seriously, wtf were they thinking?!

almost 6 years ago

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Chris King

The 10:10 so called "Splattergate" raises a number of important issues & things to consider. Prior to this we must take with a pinch of salt the panic stricken headline that this was a "catastrophe for environmentalism". Sensationalist headlines like these stir debate, however, I'm sure we can all think of real actual catastrophic issues that are effecting the environment. I will leave you to judge what catastrophe is more important in this context.

1) 10:10 organisation's overall objective.

"10:10 is about one simple idea: we all commit to reduce our carbon emissions by 10% starting this year, then work together to make it happen" (10:10 web site). Let's not lose site of the fact that 10:10's core objective is to reduce carbon emissions by 10%. 60% - 80% (depending on which survey) of the UK population do believe in climate change & that it is being caused by man made actions. This is supported by practically every scientific expert.

One (albeit very large) media gaff, doesn't detract from the fact that this is a worthwhile campaign.

2. Core messages & methodology communicated by the film

Let's face it the film is awful. It makes you wonder who came up with this concept. The key lesson 10:10 is NOT to fall into the "Black & White" camp of communicating central issues around climate change. Climate change generates enough debate without falling into the "All or Nothing" (easy option) method of communication which clearly does not work.

Whilst shock tactics can work for "cause" related campaigns, generally speaking this does not work for "communication". We all know that heavy handed "do not do" messages have the opposite effect on the receiver. We all know - apart from the creators of the 10:10 film.

3. 10:10's media content advisor's & learning's

Out of the back of this I hope that 10:10 is rethinking who they decide to work & partner with for media content. The film has bombed big time & one wonders who advised them to go down this line. You would like to think that 10:10 is taking a hard line on this & takes some positive corrective action.

4. Anti-climate change lobby

Of course, media disasters like this only plays into the hands of the anti-climate change lobby. This is absolutely the opposite effect that the film was intending to have. I dread to think what kind of reaction this has had via large sections of our media & readers. I'm sure they are having a field day.

5. Corporate sponsors & "Greenwashing" As for the corporate sponsors & their involvement pre/post the release.

Out of those 3 brands only one can hold their head up high & say that they have a good record with regards to ethics. One has a record which is below average at best. One has a disgraceful & poor record of ethical business practices.

Lessons learned for these:

a) Company with good record for ethics - I would urge your PR & Corporate & CSR departments to think more closely about who your partners are in future campaigns of this nature. Whilst the 10:10 campaign is a respectable cause, the negativity you have received via the involvement with other companies will further drag down the actual positive work you are doing. Think about who you are working with, not just the "cause".

b) Inexperience & naivety - This demonstrates inexperience & naivety of working in this area. This is understandable for companies who have poor records themselves, as it reinforces their own internal lack of CSR policy. If you don't have an effective internal policy, you will not be successful working in partnership on these type of campaigns. "Better the devil you know" & if you don't know I advise you to work on your own internal CSR & in the meantime play in the "safe ground. When you have your house in order, I'm sure you will be welcomed into more partnerships.

c) Greenwash - I recommend that all "Causes" around environmental issues think long & hard about who they choose to partner with for creative direction, media production & corporate partners. I would say this is a classic case of all 3 of these being wrong for reasons stated above.

d) Corporate Sponsors - To avoid "Greenwash" I would urge you to work with organisations who have a vested interest, real passion for the cause & experience of delivering campaigns like this.

Do some research about who you are choosing to partner with. Organisations who have a track record of delivering strong CSR & in this case strong "Green" related CSR projects should be the companies you approach for support. Note the keyword here is "projects", yes, projects that have delivered something "TANGIBLE & MEASURABLE" in the past.

In many cases the companies that have the biggest budgets are delivering the most hot air & "campaigns" around this subject. You don't have to dig very deep to realise that their "campaigns" are purely "old school" push marketing. Dig just a little deeper & you can see that they DON'T practice what they preach.

Finally, on a more lighter note the video was a case of fun going wrong & it's a shame that Agent Scully had anything to do with it.

almost 6 years ago

John Braithwaite

John Braithwaite, Managing Director at Ergo Digital

I think this is more of a storm in a teacup. Whilst a bit of a PR disaster, it's not really reached enough audience to last for more than a few months. It's hardly a BP-sized spill.

almost 6 years ago

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Geoff Middleton

If you call going viral "not really reached enough audience". This will run and run. The vileness of the eco-fascist lobby has been revealed for all to see. And O2 is still supporting the 10:10 outfit, bewilderingly damaging its brand.

almost 6 years ago

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