For CBS “EcoAds”, Seeing Isn’t Believing

If you’re one of the few Americans who doesn’t fast forward through TV commercials, you may have seen something new on certain ads running on CBS programs. These “EcoAds,” a project created by the EcoMedia division of CBS, are commercials that feature a green leaf logo and the phrase “EcoAd” displayed at the bottom of the screen while the commercial plays.

“What a great environmentally-friendly product,” you may be thinking as you watch the ad and see the green leaf logo. “I’m going to go right out and buy that eco-safe nuclear power plant.”

But if you were in the market for a nuclear power plant, and you really wanted one that was eco-friendly, you might be fooled by the CBS EcoAd. Because the EcoAd symbol doesn’t tell you anything about the environmental attributes of the products or companies who display the ad.

What does the ad mean, then? According to CBS, it means that some of the revenue they bring in from the ad will go to local environmental projects. But there’s no way to know that when you view the ad. Instead, it looks like any other eco-label – CBS even called the ads a “green stamp of approval” that lets companies show viewers that they are committed to the environment. What kinds of ads can display the symbol? According to CBS, “Any ad can be an EcoAd.”

So, sure, that nuke plant may be using uranium that was mined in a horribly environmentally-destructive manner; and sure it produces waste that’s so toxic that hundreds of generations from now our descendants will still be cursing us for creating it; and of course if something goes wrong (not that anything ever goes wrong at nuclear power plants!), the plant may create a dead zone of destruction unlike any other known on Earth.

Luckily, so far the neighborhood nuclear power plants are not using the EcoAd logo. But if they ever do advertise with CBS, and CBS gives money from their ads to the local ballfield for new energy-efficient lighting, the good old neighborhood nuke plant can proudly display the EcoAd symbol in their advertising. And for viewers interested in actual environmental performance – its caveat emptor, baby.

Clearly, the CBS program has massive potential for greenwashing – which is why CEH and other consumer and environmental watchdogs have filed a formal complaint about the EcoAd program with the Federal Trade Commission [link to the complaint]. We are urging CBS to change the EcoAd program, so that a third-party with no financial incentive can oversee participation in the program, and so viewers of the ads can know what the EcoAd symbol means – and doesn’t mean – when they see it on an ad.