Monday, March 12, 2012

The Lorax and the Mazda CX-5: Greenwashing in a movie tie-in advertising campaign?

Are we in the midst of another case of a “citizen’s arrest” for alleged Greenwashing?  In the case of a Mazda advertising campaign tied in to the release of the movie adaptation of Dr. Suess’ The Lorax, the answer might be yes.  

As blog readers with young ones at home probably know, the Lorax movie was this past weekend’s box office champ here in the United States, grossing nearly $40 million.  And theatergoers were not the only ones attracted to this family-friendly fare with a sustainability-positive message.  Mazda, seeking to promote its CX-5 compact SUV, and in particular its Skyactiv technology, jumped in with a piece of movie tie-in marketing.  One place to see the ad is on Youtube, where Mazda touts that it “cares an awful lot”, and that the CX-5 with Skyactiv technology has received the “Truffula Tree Seal of Approval”.   Before going further, I should note that I currently own a Mazda, and have had a number of other Mazda cars over the years.  So I respect the product as a consumer, and in no way intend for this post to “pile on” the criticism this particular ad has received.

What seemed like a good opportunity to Mazda, however, now stands as yet another cautionary tale for companies looking to advertise the sustainability of products and services.   Mazda’s ad, touting the environmental friendliness of the CX-5 via Skyactiv’s fuel economy-promoting benefits against a Lorax-inspired tableau, has quickly come under fire from the “green” media and the public.  Take another look at that Youtube link, where the comments are overwhelmingly negative – along the lines of “Epic fail Mazda” – and the ad has generated 1,341 “dislikes” against 173 “likes." One commenter takes Mazda to task for “using an environmental movie to advertise an SUV” and analogizes it to using “Ghandi to advertise a gun club." 

But the toughest criticism has come from the Guardian’s “Environment blog” which savages the ad for its “crass chicanery” and holds it out as an example of greenwashing at its worst – and in the case of the Lorax himself “character assassination."  This Guardian blogger even uses the ad as a jumping-off point to explore Mazda’s entire green strategy in a critical way.  One can safely assume that this is probably not what Mazda intended with this ad.  

Perhaps most troubling for companies that have a legitimate desire to advertise sustainable products and services is the absolute speed at which a well-intended campaign can fall into critique for alleged greenwashing offenses.  And in today’s marketplace, that criticism can come from all sides, including government agencies, media, and the general public. Further, not only does the criticism emanate from several sources, its sting affects both the sponsor (Mazda) and the co-branded product (Universal's The Lorax film). Now both Mazda and Universal have to deal with the fallout. These unintended consequences are the types of contingencies that a well-informed advertising counsel can help a client consider, prior to the ads' publication.

While policing of greenwashing claims is warranted, there is a risk that such policing will have a chilling effect on advertising of sustainable products and services generally.  Any resultant drop in innovative activity on the part of companies  or missed opportunities to inform consumers of more sustainable choices would be a shame.  For now though, companies must proceed cautiously with such advertising efforts.  Mazda may be the latest to have learned this lesson, but they won’t be the last.

Author: Gaston Kroub