Has the UK’s ASA overstepped the mark in HSBC climate change ad ban?

Should the UK’s ad regulator the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) be a climate change warrior?

Looks a bit like that as the venerable body (which has mostly steered clear of damaging controversy) now has an Environment and Climate Change Project which offers guidance on so-called greenwashing. The ASA says: “The project sends a clear signal that the ASA will be shining a brighter regulatory spotlight on advertising issues that relate to climate change and the environment in the coming months and years.”

A number of brands have fallen foul of the new “project,” now including HSBC for its Out of Home campaign positioning the bank as a champion of sustainability. In particular it promoted its work helping to finance companies moving to net zero: ‘Climate change doesn’t do borders. Neither do rising sea levels. That’s why HSBC is aiming to provide up to $1tn in financing and investment globally to help our clients transition to net zero.’

Pressure group Adfree Cities saw an opportunity and were among 45 complainants who said HSBC were actually supporting high-emitters like energy companies. HSBC’s argument that they were helping to improve these companies’ performance didn’t wash.

There’s merit on both sides in this climate change argument (we’ll leave Adfree Cities out of it for now) but opposing climate change has become an orthodoxy (fair enough) that encompasses a lot of other views that opponents of climate change may find less palatable.

The ASA needs to walk a fine line in regulating these issues and banning this iteration of Wunderman Thompson’s ‘borders’ campaign (HSBC is agin’ them if you hadn’t noticed) seems over the top. There’s much to criticise HSBC for – like the Hong Kong-founded bank’s craven attitude to China – but maybe not this.

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About Stephen Foster

Stephen is a former editor of Marketing Week and London Evening Standard advertising columnist. He wrote City Republic for Brand Republic and is a partner in communications consultancy The Editorial Partnership.

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