This week, the ASA published two rulings about ads that promoted a switch from meat-based to non-meat-based foods. One was not upheld, while the other was upheld.
- On the one hand we have Sainsbury’s: their ad campaign involved one radio and one TV ad. The voice-over on the ads encouraged the audience to try their “half-est” by mixing half chickpeas, lentils and beans with half chicken, mince and beef as a way to help the planet. The complaints were based on the fact that the chickpeas, lentils and beans featured in the ads were likely to have been grown and imported from abroad, therefore potentially having a greater environmental impact than domestically produced meat, and so the complainants challenged whether the claim that the swap was “better for the planet” was misleading.
- On the other hand, we have Tesco: Tesco’s ad campaign involved a TV, video on demand, radio and press ad, a tweet and Tesco’s own website. The ads all featured a woman eating a burger and specifically referenced Tesco’s own Plant Chef product range. The theme of the ads was around people making ‘little swaps’ to their diet in order to help the environment. The issue here was whether the claims that the little swaps would make a difference to the planet could be substantiated.
On the face of it, these ads were based on two very similar messages: making small swaps in your diet from meat to non-meat foods will help the environment. However, the ASA thought there was an important distinction, because while Sainsbury's was given the all-clear by the ASA, the Tesco campaign was found to be misleading.
What was the difference?
The key distinction was the generality of the claims. The campaign from Sainsbury’s talked about the broad concept of switching meat ingredients for non-meat ingredients in meals.
In response to the complaint made against this ad the ASA said: We acknowledged that the chickpeas, beans and lentils featured in the ad would likely have been grown abroad and imported into the UK. However, we did not consider that the ad was comparing domestically produced meat with imported legumes. Ad (b) featured the claim “Research shows eating in line with UK dietary guidelines will be better for the planet than the current average UK diet”. We considered that made clear that the ad was focusing on a change in diet, shifting from meat-based to more plants, rather than a comparison of domestic and imported produce. It was making a general claim regarding the overall accepted premise that a plant-based diet was, in general terms, better for the environment.
By focussing on a shift in diet, rather than specific products, the ASA held that Sainsbury’s were advocating the general reduction in meat portions in order to promote the general benefits to the environment of reducing meat protein in substation for plant protein, and therefore considered that the substantiation was adequate to support the claim.
In comparison, the Tesco ad campaign referenced a specific product range, namely the Tesco Plant Chef range.
In its ruling, the ASA acknowledged that it was generally accepted amongst the scientific community that diets which included meat, and particularly red meat, have a greater environmental impact than plant-based diets. However, and crucially for the purpose of Tesco’s campaign, they stated that “we also recognised that specific plant-based products, particularly processed products which could contain a number of different ingredients sourced from around the world, could nevertheless contain ingredients or be produced and transported by methods that had a high carbon or negative environmental impact. Notwithstanding the general benefits of plant-based diets in broad environmental terms, it would not necessarily always be the case that specific plant-based products would always be guaranteed to have a lower carbon or environmental impact than specific meat-based products”.
While the ASA acknowledged that the page on the website did include a general statement that swapping meat for a plant-based diet generally was better for the environment, they held that the focus of all of the ads was to promote the Plant Chef range, rather than make this general statement.
Key to the ASA's decision was the lack of substantiation to support Tesco's claim.
Given that the ads implied that switching to products in Tesco’s Plant Chef range would positively affect the environment, the ASA expected to see robust evidence of this, and in particular in relation to the full life cycle of the Plant Chef burger in comparison with a meat burger.
As Tesco was not able to produce this evidence, the ASA concluded that the claims regarding the positive benefits to the planet had not been substantiated and were therefore likely to mislead.
Does it go without saying?
What these decisions show is that, while the ASA accepts the general premise that there may be environmental benefits to reducing our meat intake and switching to a more plant-based diet in principle, but as soon as this is put into the context of a specific product or product range, the advertiser must hold robust substantiation to prove that the claim is true in relation to those products.
In the absence of adequate substantiation, relying on the argument that it is 'common sense' will not fly. It's important to put meat on the bones of that kind of assertion by producing actual facts and evidence.
These decisions come just two days after the ASA published an update on its work on its Climate Change and Environment project since its last statement in September 2021. Amongst other things, this statement included details on three deliverables over and above the ASA’s existing work in relation to environmental advertising, one of which includes looking at claims regarding plant-based substitutes. For more information on this, see my colleague’s helpful summary here.
The ASA said that it was generally accepted that by switching to a more plant-based diet, consumers could cut their overall environmental impact. But it added that some plant-based products contained a combination of ingredients and had "complex production processes" which could "theoretically result in their having a similar, or greater, negative environmental impact than basic plant ingredients, or a meat-based alternative". As such, the ASA said the adverts could no longer run in their current form.