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UK advertising watchdog grounds Lufthansa for misleading claims

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An advert by German airline Lufthansa (ETR:LHA) has been banned by the UK’s Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), which said it mislead consumers over environmental claims.

  • The advert’s tagline may imply that flying with Lufthansa would protect the future of the world, according to the ASA, even though air travel produces high levels of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.
  • It comes after the ASA updated its guidance to impose more clarity and definition in their use of sustainability claims and terms.
  • Advertising and marketing communications are under intense scrutiny, and false or unsubstantiated claims not only run the risk of greenwash but also potential legal liability.

In February 2023, the ASA updated its guidance on two areas of potential confusion for consumers: understanding the terms used, and verifying claims from advertisers. Advertising from the air travel, energy and automotive sectors garnered the most attention, with the regulator suggesting that the need for transparency is potentially greater in those sectors. 

What was the ASA’s objection to Lufthansa’s advert?

Lufthansa’s advert featured the image of the front of a plane in flight, with the image of earth from space on the underside, accompanied by the tagline “LUFTHANSA GROUP. CONNECTING THE WORLD. PROTECTING ITS FUTURE. #MakeChangeFly”. According to the ASA, this constituted a misleading claim about the airline’s environmental impact.

The watchdog said it was in violation of its Committee of Advertising, or CAP code, which requires environmental claims to be supported by high levels of substantiation. While the view conveyed by the advert was vague and did not make a direct sustainability claim, the ASA said that the latter half of the tagline could be interpreted by consumers that flying with Lufthansa could help protect the future of the planet.

The ASA added that, while Lufthansa was trying to highlight its aspirations to be carbon neutral by 2050 and to cut CO2 emissions in half by 2030, the information in the advert did not substantiate this. In fact, the regulator reasoned that consumers may understand the message to suggest that the airline had already completed many of the steps to reduce its carbon footprint.

The ASA also noted that aviation is responsible for 2-3% of global CO2 emissions, while the sector’s share of emissions in the EU is even higher at 3.7%. Most of Lufthansa’s efforts to reduce its emissions were not expected to take effect for several years or even a decade, nor were there immediate initiatives by the industry to mitigate emissions in the near future that could support the message conveyed by the claim “PROTECTING ITS FUTURE”.

Accordingly, the ASA concluded that the ad breached the CAP code because the basis of the claim had not been made clear and it had not been adequately substantiated.

What was Lufthansa’s response?

In its defence, Lufthansa said that the advert provided a link to the website, part of the wider “#MakeChangeFly” campaign, and its main purpose was to increase awareness among consumers of the need to reduce the environmental impact of aviation, and the airline’s efforts to do so. 

The airline added, that since the first part of the tagline was not an absolute claim, it was not fair to assume that the second half, which contains the environmental claim, was an absolute claim either. Rather than viewing the ad as misleading, Lufthansa said it draws consumer attention to its attempts at improving its profile, including being one of the largest purchasers of sustainable aviation fuel.

In an attempt to further defend its position, the airline also highlighted its role, and that of the air transport sector, in facilitating economic growth, creating employment and transporting goods. Acknowledging the environmental impact of air travel, Lufthansa said visitors to its website would be able to see the actions taken by it to mitigate its emissions, which would help substantiate the ad. 

What’s clear from the ASA’s ruling is that no matter the justification and the intentions of advertisers, the message in any communication that contains sustainability claims must be clear, be able to substantiate those claims, and provide any other supporting information that may be necessary.

What does the future hold for advertising and communication in promoting sustainability?

There is a growing number of brands that claim to fill the need for more sustainable products and services. While consumer protection laws are intended to support buyers of goods and services, they can also help create a level playing field for competitors by ensuring that products are genuine and backed by legitimate claims.

The new guidance from the CAP (and BCAP, or Broadcast Committee on Advertising Practice) builds on the main principles of the guidance provided by the Competition Market Authority (CMA). CAP and BCAP advised advertisers to follow the new guidance to reduce the potential for false and misleading claims, especially when it comes to environmental ones.

The main thrust of the new guidance is that claims should be substantiated and supported using accurate and qualified information. Explaining the basis of net zero or carbon neutral claims, for example, could enhance consumer understanding of the matter.

Also, the qualifying information that substantiates the authenticity of a claim should be easily understandable by consumers, and closely related to the key aspects of the sustainability claim being made. 

The lack of clarity in sustainability terms in product advertising and communications will continue to invite scrutiny. Moreover, regulators and activists are not content with just ‘naming and shaming’ companies that may be guilty of alleged greenwash, they are also bringing legal action against them – as seen with Global Witness’s complaint against Shell (LON: SHEL) over its portrayal of renewable investments. As such, greenwash is coming with increased legal risk.

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