Is your brand guilty of greenwashing in your Google Ads?

Greenwashing happens when a company tries to trick customers into thinking they’re environmentally friendly to attract their business. It can happen on purpose or by mistake due to poor planning and lack of awareness.

Many big brands, from Nestle to Starbucks, have been caught greenwashing. It’s a prevalent problem within some industries, such as fast fashion.

This article explores the risks and consequences of greenwashing, plus tips to ensure your Google Ads don’t mislead consumers into thinking your brand is environmentally friendly.

Example of a greenwashing ad from Coca-Cola

Why brands should watch out for greenwashing in marketing

Ensure your organization isn’t found to be greenwashing in any of its marketing materials – including making claims on your website or other forms of marketing such as Google Ads.

Greenwashing can anger consumers and bring unwanted bad PR and a potential fine or penalization.

In the UK, a recently passed bill means that the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) will have the power to impose fines of up to 10% of annual global turnover. 

Meanwhile, in the U.S., the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has published its own Green Guides that cover the topic in more detail. 

While these aren’t enforceable laws, that doesn’t mean your organization will be safe from prosecution outside of the U.S.

So, if you’re managing the Google Ads on behalf of a client or are working in-house, you’ll want to make sure your Google Ads aren’t greenwashing, too.

Greenwashing claim with U.S.-based organization upheld in the UK 

In the UK there was a recent case of greenwashing found involving 4AIR, an aviation sustainability organization based in Cleveland, Ohio. 

What was interesting here was that the claim was upheld by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) which regulates advertising in the UK, so the ad was viewed outside of the U.S..

The ad, in this case, was targeting or visible to users in the UK, so the ASA was able to intervene.

The ruling was targeted around the wording used in the Google Ad, which included statements like: 

“Eco-Friendly Aviation – Future of Sustainable Aviation”

“Learn How To Turn Flying Into A Force For Good With A 4AIR Rating. Industry-Leading Standard For Sustainability In Private Aviation. Sustainability. Aviation Industry”

Screenshot taken from Google’s Ad Transparency Library

The ad itself was picked up by the ASA’s Active Ad Monitoring system, which “uses AI to proactively search for online ads that might break the rules.” 

This means that unsubstantiated claims, or exaggerated environmental claims as is the case here, can easily be detected by the ASA. 

Simply put, they don’t have to wait for someone to make a complaint about a particular ad, as was the case previously.

In this instance, and luckily for 4AIR, the outcome was that they simply must not make similar claims that can’t be substantiated again in the future.

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Risks of using Google’s Dynamic Search Ads feature

The Dynamic Search Ads feature will use content found on a site to target ads, select keywords and potentially create ad headlines. 

According to the Google Transparency Library, 4AIR used some Dynamic Search Ads.

Many brands, particularly in ecommerce, might use Dynamic Search Ads within their Google Ads account.

They’re particularly handy for sites with a big inventory of products that often update, requiring constant management of the ads.

If used on a site that may be making unsubstantiated environmental claims or greenwashing, this may mean Google is inadvertently greenwashing on your behalf. 

This is why keeping a close eye on your ads account is always important, especially if you opt in to use Dynamic Search Ads. 

If you navigate to the Search terms report under Dynamic Ad Targets, you should see the terms Google has been using within your campaign.

In this case, 4AIR did appear to be using this dynamic ad form, but it’s hard to say if that was the cause of them being picked up by the ASA. 

Ultimately, the fact their website contained those bold claims will have led to the same result anyway.

How to check if your business may be greenwashing in your Google Ads

I spoke with sustainability marketing consultant Slavina Dimitrova to find out what brands can do to ensure they’re not caught unwittingly greenwashing.

Brands should “be particularly wary of using broad sustainability terms like ‘eco-friendly’ or ‘good for the planet’ without thoroughly checking they can define and evidence them in the context of the whole business and full product or service life cycle,” she said.

“Greenwashing might not only be limited to the phrases you use in your ad copy, on your website or other marketing and communications channels or platforms. Even the colors, images, packaging and logos used might be misleading. If, for example, you’re using a green leaf motif or an image of the earth near copy comprising of a vague statement, such as ‘protecting the world’s future,'” she added.

It’s unlikely that most businesses set out to greenwash consumers intentionally. In most cases, they’re likely not tracking, monitoring or assessing the environmental and social impacts across the full life cycle of their products or services and their whole business.

They may genuinely believe they are doing “the right thing” or caring about the environment without actually having the hard data to back up the claims they’re making. 

So, it’s essential to get proper sustainability audits by people with sufficient expertise completed prior to claiming that your brand is good for the environment

Some questions to ask yourself might include:

Are you making any big environmental claims in your Google Ads?

Do you know if your company has completed an Environment, Social and Governance (ESG) audit?

Does anyone within the company sign off on ad/creative copy before publishing?

Where to check within your Google Ads account

The first places to check are within any of your search campaigns. These will be within the text ads themselves, which typically get the most visibility.

Ad assets 

Screenshot of a false ad that I mocked up showcasing greenwashing in action.

You should check your assets, particularly Callout and Sitelink assets.

Sitelink assets are a good spot to check as this gives you additional room below your main search ad to expand your messaging, linking to specific pages on your site. 

You can access these by selecting Search Campaign > Ads and assets > Assets > Sitelink.

What your Sitelink Descriptions look like within the Google Ads interface

Note that sometimes these are not fully displayed. You may just see the title of the sitelink (as shown in the mock-up ad previously), whereas descriptions can also be included. 

Callout assets might be a common place to greenwash. Since you’ve only got 25 characters to work with, you may be tempted to add short phrases like “eco-friendly” or similar. 

It’s OK to use that term as long as you can measure and prove you are.

You can access these by selecting Search Campaign > Ads and assets > Assets > Callout.

Another false ad I’d created with the Callout assets field highlighted

Display and video campaigns

It might be easy to forget to check any display campaigns, including display and video campaigns. 

If you’ve had banners created in-house or by a third-party agency, hopefully, the messaging included would have been reviewed and approved before getting designed.

Google Ads has quite a powerful display ad builder tool, so it would be wise to check the messaging you’ve selected there if you’re using that. Luckily, it would be simple enough to tweak this and rebuild those ads if necessary. 

The same advice applies to video if using the Google Ads Video Builder.

Could the Google Ads interface warn of greenwashing?

What if, before an ad goes live, Google was to check for any greenwashing claims and flag or warn of any potential issues before allowing ads to go live?

This may not be a popular choice, and it’s unlikely Google would intervene in this way as local laws will probably vary too much. 

If the ASA’s AI technology can detect greenwashing within live ads, I imagine it wouldn’t be too hard for Google to do something similar. 

Avoid the high cost of greenwashing in Google Ads

To avoid inadvertently engaging in greenwashing, carefully scrutinize your advertising materials, including Google Ads, for any potentially misleading claims.

Sustainability claims should be substantiated through thorough audits and data-backed evidence. Also, consider your products and services’ broader environmental and social impacts and ensure your claims align with your practices.

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