Greenpeace, Tar Sands and “Fighting Fire With Fire”

Do higher standards apply to advertising by industry than apply to advertising by nonprofits? Is it fair to fight fire with fire? Do two wrongs make a right?

See this item, by Kevin Libin, writing for National Post: Yogourt fuels oil-sands war.

Here’s what is apparently intolerable to certain environmental groups opposed to Alberta’s oil sands industry: an advertisement that compares the consistency of tailings ponds to yogourt.

Here’s what is evidently acceptable to certain environmental groups opposed to Alberta’s oil sands industry: an advertisement warning that a young biologist working for Devon Energy named Megan Blampin will “probably die from cancer” from her work, and that her family will be paid hush money to keep silent about it….

It’s worth reading the rest of the story to get the details. Basically, the question is about the standards that apply to advertising by nonprofit or activist groups like the Sierra Club and Greenpeace. But it’s also more specifically about whether it’s OK for such groups to get personal by including in their ads individual employees of the companies they are targeting.

A few quick points:

  • Many people think companies deserve few or no protections against attacks. Some people, for example, think companies should not even be able to sue for slander or libel. Likewise, corporations (and other organizations) do not enjoy the same regulatory protections and ethical standards that protect individual humans when they are the subjects of university-based research. Corporations may have, of necessity, certain legal rights, but not the same list (and not as extensive a list) as the list of rights enjoyed by human persons. So people are bound to react differently when activist groups attack (or at least name) individual human persons, as opposed to “merely” attacking corporations.
  • Complicating matters is the fact that the original ads (by Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, or CAPP) themselves featured those same individual employees. So the employees had presumably already volunteered to be put in the spotlight. But of course, they volunteered to be put in the spotlight in a particular way.
  • For many people, the goals of the organizations in question will matter. So the fact that Greenpeace and the Sierra Club are trying literally to save the world (rather than aiming at something more base, like filthy lucre) might be taken as earning them a little slack. In other words, some will say that the ends justify the means. On the other hand, the particular near-term goals of those organizations are not shared by everyone. And not everyone thinks that alternative goals (like making a profit, or like keeping Canadians from freezing to death in winter) are all that bad.
  • Others might say that, being organizations explicitly committed to doing good, Greenpeace and the Sierra Club ought to be entirely squeaky-clean. If they can’t be expected to keep their noses clean, who can? On the other hand, some might find that just a bit precious. Getting the job done is what matters, and it’s not clear that an organization with noble goals wins many extra points for conducting itself in a saintly manner along the way.

(I’ve blogged about the tar sands and accusations of greenwashing, here: Greenwashing the Tar Sands.)

Thanks to LW for sending me this story.

4 comments so far

  1. Jack Marshall on

    Fascinating question, Chris. I’d say this particular example isn’t especially close: taking an individual without her permission and making her the “star” of an ad attacking her own employer, using a fake “quote” to boot, seems pretty far over any ethical lines, even if we draw them more leniently for environmental activists. Which we should not, by the way.

  2. pobept on

    Neither side can be trusted or fully believed in their advertising campaigns.

    Environmental for and not for profit as well as business concerns all spout unproved and in many cases simple personal opinions on environmental issues as scientific facts.

    Even scientist can not be fully trusted when they are on the payroll of environment organizations whether they be non-profit or business based organizations.

  3. […] Here’s an excerpt – Many people think companies deserve few or no protections against attacks. Some people, for example, think companies should not even be able to sue for slander or libel. Likewise, corporations (and other organizations) do not enjoy the same regulatory protections and ethical standards that protect individual humans when they are the subjects of university-based research. […]

  4. jilly on

    I think there are a couple of points you should mention, Chris, notably that, according to the article, the Greenpeace “ad” was not an ad at all, but a contest on a FaceBook page, and that it was not produced by Greenpeace, but by a entrant to that contest, of necessity, a subscriber to FaceBook. I am not a subscriber to FaceBook, so I could not access the contest or see the entries.

    That said, I don’t think that there is any question that the result as described was in poor taste. Greenpeace could be taken to task for the use made of it, if any. It is possible that any actual effort to publish it would result in a lawsuit for infringement of copyright if nothing else (although Adbusters appears to “jam” with relative impunity).

    Whether the contest constitutes a violation of ethics is a different issue, however. The only analogy I can make is similar to the one you made: to human subjects research. In effect, the contest took material that is publicly available, and commented on it. According to the revised Tri Council Policy Statement:

    “Article 2.2 Research that relies exclusively on publicly available information does not require REB review when:
    (a) the information is legally accessible to the public and appropriately protected by law; or,
    (b) the information is publicly accessible and there is no reasonable expectation of privacy.”

    http://www.pre.ethics.gc.ca/eng/policy-politique/initiatives/tcps2-eptc2/Default/

    I would say that the employees who volunteered for the ads were involved in a political exercise, and should have anticipated a political response. The statement made by Ms. Annesley (that the contest might discourage employees from volunteering for future ads) strikes me as likely to be true, but only because they will have been made aware of the real world possibilities involved in making themselves vulnerable. That is not necessarily a bad thing.

    Cheers


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