Advertising has seen a focus shift in the last 20 years, with companies realising that consumers will pay a premium for a product with perceived environmental or social benefits. This has led to corporations around the globe leveraging the desire to ‘go green’ as a means of increasing profits. In an attempt to protect the US public against green-washing, the Federal Trade Commission published Green Guides, which stipulate what is acceptable in environmental marketing and has led to other similar guidelines being adopted around the world.
Will this also lead to guidelines about acceptable marketing for products with perceived social benefits and to combat practices such as pink-washing? This expression was coined by Breast Cancer Action in the nineties, following the adoption of the pink ribbon as a symbol of a company’s support of the fight against breast cancer. It refers to companies using the pink ribbon and other symbols indicating support for the fight against breast cancer to entice consumers and drive up sales of a product or brand.
A recent case before the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) addressed pink- washing in a South African context. A complaint was brought to the ASA against Triton Leo, the company that produces a popular multi-purpose lubricant Q20, on the grounds that it was engaged in a pink-washing marketing campaign that was in contravention of the ASA’s guidelines. Herschell, one of Q20’s competitors, alleged that the limited edition pink Q20 campaign, in terms of which Triton Leo offered a percentage of every pink can sold to the Cancer Association of South Africa (Cansa):
- Created the misleading impression that Q20 was endorsed by Cansa.
- Caused consumers to believe that the Q20 product itself was safe and not carcinogenic, which it supported with argument that Q20 contained Trichloroethylene and Perchloroethylene (classified by several international classification systems as potentially carcinogenic) and
- Did not disclose the exact amount that would be donated to Cansa through the sale of each pink can.
This, Herschell claimed, contravened the ASA’s provisions on both charitable donations (requiring disclosure of donated amounts) and misleading claims.
Whilst Triton Leo admitted that it had acted in contravention of the provisions of the code relating to charitable donations and undertook to rectify this (which the ASA accepted), it strongly denied that the pink campaign in any way misled consumers. Its defence was based on consistent transparency throughout the campaign, both with consumers and with CANSA regarding the nature of the campaign, as well as the positive support the campaign had received from consumers. It also objected to questionable evidence of confusion by members of the public that Herschell presented.
In finding in favour of Triton-Leo, the ASA declined to rule on whether or not Q20 was carcinogenic, stating that it does not have jurisdiction over the quality or safety of a product, or even of health risks associated with that product. It consequently limited its finding to any potentially misleading aspect regarding the pink campaign. In arriving at a finding the ASA placed much emphasis on the use of the words “supporting the fight against breast cancer” and a pink ribbon logo mark on the pink can.
This combination, according to the ASA, made it clear to reasonable consumers that some sort of financial support was being offered to a charitable cause, providing sufficient grounds on which to rule that the pink campaign was not misleading.
It is important to identify the factors which led to a ruling in Triton-Leo’s favour. Whilst the ASA is not bound by its prior decisions, as the only significant example of pink-washing in South Africa, it is likely that this decision will guide findings in similar cases in the future. Firstly, and most importantly, the ASA confirmed that it has no jurisdiction to decide whether or not a product is carcinogenic.
Also, despite forming a key aspect of the popular understanding of the term ‘pink-washing’, the ASA left the door open for companies who do not produce products free of carcinogenic ingredients to advertise their charitable efforts in this field. It is also clear that the ASA will examine each complaint against a benchmark of reasonableness relevant to the market concerned, and that it will not apply blanket logic to all complaints of pink-washing.
This dispute generated substantial media interest, as is often the case with conflicts centered on social issues, and marketers would do well to exercise caution in charitable and social issue campaigns to ensure the utmost transparency with the public.