In another example of allowing perfection to the be the enemy of the good when dealing with accusations of green washing, the UK's Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has banned a recent TV commercial for the Persil brand of detergent. In its anxiety to prevent any perceived 'green washing' by advertisers, the ASA has once again lost sight of the fact that the Advertising Codes are only breached by a claim when it is 'materially misleading', not merely when that claim could have been polished and honed until any residual stain of ambiguity was expunged. In addition, the assessment of whether a claim is misleading is made through the eyes of the 'Average Consumer', the successor to proverbial "man on the Clapham Omnibus", who is reasonably well-informed, observant and circumspect, rather than their traditional counterpart, "The moron in a hurry".

The ad contained two main claims. The first was about the performance of Persil and its ability to remove stains at low temperatures (30ºC)  and on a quick wash (60 minutes). Even a moron in a hurry, let alone the Average Consumer, will understand that a 'cool wash' and a 'quick wash' will consume less energy than either a higher temperature wash or a longer wash. 

The second claim concerned the use of re-cycled plastic to make the bottles for Persil, with the claim being "Made with 50% recycled plastic ....*Excludes cap and label". 

The ad ended with the voiceover and on-screen text stating "Tough on stains, kinder to our planet. Dirt is good."

A single, solitary complainant challenged whether the claims that Persil washing liquid was “kinder to our planet” were misleading and could be substantiated. This a TV ad that was presumably seen by hundreds of thousands, if not millions of viewers, all but one of whom apparently did not feel sufficiently concerned about any ambiguity to complain about the ad. All these other viewers were presumably quite content that a quicker, lower temperature wash will use less energy and therefore have less of an environmental impact, as will using re-cycled plastic in the packaging. These viewers, or average consumers, are not morons in a hurry who need to be protected from their own gullibility. But the complainant is certainly not in a hurry. In fact, he seems to have rather too much time on his hands.

The adjudication sets out the substantiation for the claims, as well as Clearcast's rationale for approving them. None of it is terribly surprising, although it was interesting to read that the magazine Which? has reported that washing clothes at 30°C rather than at 40°C uses 38% less energy. A useful tip for the Average Consumer as they face the prospect of the cost of living crisis this autumn, as well as the ongoing climate crisis. Take that, Mr Putin. We will keep defiantly warm this winter by wearing more clothes and washing them less frequently at a lower temperature.

It appears from the Adjudication that the ASA did not dispute that the advertiser could substantiate the central thrust of the two claims set out above. However, they felt that claim "kinder to our planet" was ambiguous and that in the absence of evidence demonstrating that the full life cycle of the product had a lesser environmental impact compared to a previous formulation, the ad was likely to mislead.

That just won't wash. This ad is not misleading. Persil is kinder to the planet because you can wash your clothes at a lower temperature and on a shorter cycle.  Clearcast were persuaded of this before the ad was broadcast, and that's good enough for me. Of all the vast number of people who saw the ad, the only people who seem to have thought it was misleading was the one person who complained, the member of the ASA Executive who conducted the investigation and drafted the recommended adjudication and the 12 members of the ASA Council. So 14 in total.

This matters because there is a balance to be struck between fighting green washing - which we all support - versus having a chilling effect on advertising that promotes competition, innovation and new product development which will have a positive environmental impact. By imposing impossibly high standards and strict interpretations, the ASA is in danger of throwing out the baby with the bath water. 

On this occasion, Persil certainly seems to have been hung out to dry.