The government of Norway recently banned the use of the phrases clean, green, and environmentally friendly from all car ads. This, as some have noted, is kind of funny. It also strikes me as weirdly wrongheaded.
The rationale for the ban is simple. All cars pollute, even fuel-efficient cars, so calling a car green is a bit of a stretch. It’s like referring to filtered cigarettes as healthy. Norwegian government-type person Bente Oeverli explains, “Cars cannot do anything good for the environment except less damage than others.”
But let’s put our carbon offsetting hat on for a second (yes, the one with the tassles), and recall that all emissions are equivalent. The U.S. puts out a certain amount of auto emissions every year. All other things being equal, if you introduce a new vehicle with better fuel efficiency, emissions will drop below this baseline. We can even put some hard numbers around this: a recent study suggested that plug-in hybrids have the potential to erase about half a billion tons of U.S. emissions by 2050.
Now imagine that I invent a whizzy gizmo that clamps onto people’s tailpipes and is also capable of erasing half a billion tons of emissions by 2050. Further imagine that this gizmo is almost free. Why free? Because I’m assuming that plug-in hybrids will eventually be cost-competitive with conventional cars, meaning they effectively won’t carry any price premium for their environmental attributes.
“Green” is a pretty nebulous term, but I think it’s safe to assume that my whizzy gizmo would be considered one of the most awesomely green inventions to come around in a long time. So why not the plug-in hybrid?
Now, I’m not naïve enough to think that manufacturers are applying the term green to only the cleanest, least environmentally harmful cars. And a big part of me would like to see the word rescued from abuse. Green is one of the most nebulous clichés in Marketingland.
But it’s precisely that overuse that exempts the term from accusations of marketing fraud. We’re all suitably jaded by now to know to be skeptical. If Budweiser can claim that Bud Lite tastes great, surely Toyota can call a Prius green. As great legal mind Oliver Wendell Holmes once said, “Fraud is a crime; B.S. is what makes the world go round.”*
* I totally made this quote up. But he would have said this if he had thought of it.
Photo available under Creative Commons license from Flickr user Meltwater.