British people of a certain age associate two things with the Norwegians. The first is the Monty Python Norwegian Blue sketch. The second, at least for those of us who grew up watching Blue Peter, is the Christmas Tree sent to Trafalgar Square by the people of Norway as a thank you for the support of the British in World War Two. Although the Trafalgar Square tree seems to be a bit more sparse than spruce these days, it seemed a bit churlish of the Advertising Standards Authority to send Norwegian energy company Equinor an unwelcome Christmas present on 20th December, in the form of an upheld complaint. Equinor may have thought that nobody would notice the adjudication in the deep mid-winter, just before Christmas. However, as today is Blue Monday, we are here to disabuse them of that optimism.

The complaint is yet another that has been initiated by the ASA itself, which may not be surprising as it was only published as a one-off in The Economist in June 2023.

What did the ad claim?

The artwork shows a female worker on an oil rig, looking out to another oil rig and pointing to the horizon. The text which overlays the image says, “Wind, oil, gas. carbon capture, and new jobs” and then “It's all part of the broader energy picture.” This claim is then qualified by small print (which is not part of the image accompanying this post), which states “Equinor has been delivering energy solutions to the UK for 40 years, and we are now working to help the UK achieve a smooth energy transition […] we’re producing the oil and gas the UK needs now; and will be powering millions more homes with wind, capturing and storing carbon safely […]. It’s broad energy for a brighter future”.

What was the issue?

The ASA was concerned that the ad omitted significant information about the overall environmental impact of Equinor’s business activities and was therefore misleading. 

How did Equinor try to substantiate their claim? 

It appears that Equinor thought that they were doing the right thing by clearly stating their activities in the oil and gas sectors, including by acknowledging that they are producing oil and gas now. The problem, however, was they did not give any sense of proportion, i.e., the relative size of the oil and gas business on the one hand versus their wind and CCS (carbon capture and storage) on the other. 

Equinor were able to substantiate their claims about creating more jobs and powering more homes with wind energy and investing in CCS.  As part of their ambition to be net zero by 2050, they pointed to a number of on-going activities:

  • Cutting emissions from oil and gas production and developing new technology to accelerate decarbonisation.
  • Leveraging digitalisation and technology to reduce production emissions and the carbon footprint of their offshore oil and gas production.
  • Partnering in the operation of several operational and planned wind farms and a CCS hub; and
  • Participating in several projects to decarbonise heavily industrialised regions in the UK, including in hydrogen power products. 

Why did the ASA uphold their own complaint?

The problem is that although Equinor's activities substantiate their claim about the ‘smooth energy transition’, which appears to be accepted as a concept by the ASA, their ad failed to give any sense of how much of their overall activity is represented by ‘green energy’, relative to the proportion represented by oil and gas. And as is often the case, the true picture is exposed by the advertiser's own corporate reports, which tend to provide a version of the facts that is less varnished than their advertising.

In this case, the ASA turned to Equinor’s 2022 Integrated Annual Report, and their feathers were ruffled by what they discovered:

  • Equinor's total scope 1 and 2 operated greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions were 11.4 million tonnes CO2e (carbon dioxide equivalent).
  • The company holds significant interests in international oil fields, and had increased its stake in the UK’s Rosebank oil field from 40% to 80% in 2023. 
  • The ASA understood the report to say that Equinor's oil and gas production was about 2,039 thousand barrels of oil equivalent per day in 2022. To be fair, that's a lot of oil.
  • The Report also stated that Equinor's capital expenditure on renewable investments was 14% in 2022 and expected to increase to 30% by 2025. 
  • Perhaps the most damaging point to emerge from the report was that “large-scale global oil and gas investment and extraction formed the vast majority of Equinor’s business activities and would continue to do so in the near future.” 

The ASA concluded that the overall impression of the ad was that wind energy and CCS formed a significant proportion of Equinor’s business activities, alongside oil and gas. Because the ad omitted that significant information about the relative proportion of Equinor's activities and investments, it was likely to mislead. 

What is the key lesson of this decision?

Our conclusion is that Equinor could have successfully run this ad, but their footnote needed to go one step further. They should have included the significant information about the proportion of their traditional oil and gas activities and investments relative to the “broader energy picture”. At least one other major energy company has shown how this can be done.

The sting in the tail

Finally, it is interesting to note at the end of the Response section that “[Equinor] said they had taken advice from the CAP Copy Advice team.”  And yet as noted above, this Upheld complaint was initiated by a challenge from the ASA itself, rather than a complaint from a competitor, a consumer, or even our friends at Ad Free Cities, who may not be subscribers to The Economist. Equinor may have thought that they could rest easy, having consulted CAP Copy Advice, which would surely be a feather in their cap in the event of an ASA investigation. So to end up with an upheld ASA complaint must have left them feeling not just as sick as a parrot, but as dead as a Norwegian Blue.

And if you need cheering up this Blue Monday (even after our AdLaw webinar last week), you can enjoy Monty Python's Dead Parrot sketch here.