Greenpeace Addresses Fossil Fuel Elephant in the Room at Cannes

Greenpeace protestors dressed as "This is Fine" Dogs climb a fire truck to protest fossil fuel advertising at Cannes

It’s that time of year when mega-yachts crowd the Bay of Cannes along the French Riviera. The Cannes Film Festival brings many wealthy, well-heeled stars to the region for premieres and discussions. The Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity follows, attracting some of the wealthiest, well-heeled executives in advertising, PR and media.  

More than 15,000 registered attendees fly, drive and sail into Cannes (population 74,000). That figure doesn’t include unregistered delegates and vendors looking to network, celebrate and promote their creations. In a world weary of carbon emissions and overindulgent waste, Cannes provides an arena, much like the DAVOS World Economic Forum, for activists to call out climate injustices supported, and occasionally caused, by fossil fuel advertising and messaging campaigns. 

Calling Out Cannes

Today (June 23) Greenpeace activists scaled a festival venue, arriving via a fire truck, and dressed as the “This Is Fine” dog memes. A Greenpeace press release said the activation looked “to call on a fossil ads and sponsorship ban and to ask advertising firms to cut ties with the fossil fuel industry.” 

On June 22, Greenpeace stormed the WPP beach area, The Drum reports. Silvia Pastorelli, a policy advisor at Greenpeace, said "activists targeted the WPP beach specifically because, while it is not the only major holding company that boasts major fossil fuel clients such as Shell, it is one of them.” And while the agency pledged to go carbon neutral by 2030 “their clients are responsible for the current climate crisis.”

Also yesterday, Gustav Martner, former head of a creative advertising agency and a previous award winner and jury member at Cannes, made a splash. Martner crashed the stage and returned his award, now as a Greenpeace activist.  

“War on children? This is fine. Relentless droughts and floods? This is fine. Hottest summer in history? This is fine,” Martner says in an opinion piece on Euronews.

"That’s why I chose to come back to the Cannes Lions ceremony this year, took the microphone and made the advertising award ceremony awkward. Cannes Lions claims to be the ‘Home of Creativity.’ I’m here to say there’s no creativity on a dead planet.”

Working for Change

As we know, most of the advertising and PR industry runs on capitalism. Creating messaging creates paychecks. However, some agencies are choosing more socially progressive paths when picking clients. For instance, industry advocacy group Clean Creatives urges PR firms to decline contracts with companies in the fossil fuel industry. It also houses “the F-list,” which populates every agency working with fossil fuels and the clients they serve.

Alex Frank, co-principal at The Hastings Group, says PR has three options when fossil fuel companies seek representation, including:

  1. Choosing not to work with them 
  2. Working with them on issues that do not expand fossil fuel extraction and/or usage (caveat: some of these may fall under “greenwashing”)
  3. Proceeding as usual and ignoring the planet's future   

The second approach is doable. However, it’s a thin line.

“We have found ourselves in [the second] situation. As long as the goals for a specific project or issue are in line with a good cause, we will work with them,” he says. “It can certainly be a gray area and each instance must be carefully scrutinized. If you can't defend your decision, you probably shouldn’t be working on it.”

Similarly, another view holds that ethical PR pros can represent so-called bad clients if communicators are trying "to change or redeem the harm done." Yet proving that rationale is difficult.

Frank also says if you're on a project that you believed was an objective good, but it goes south, seek the exits. "Be prepared to walk away from it.”

For some agencies, decisions on work begin with goals and values. At Hastings, many of Frank's co-workers have children, which plays a role. 

“It’s a moral issue, and it’s a matter of setting a good example for future generations.”

Still, if a PR firm represents fossil fuel interests it needs to be ready to work overtime to defend its decision in this climate-crisis environment. 

“The fact that PR firms are now having to do their own crisis management for this kind of work really says it all,” Frank says. “If you are helping...mislead the public there really is no defense and it’s a reputation risk for everyone involved.”

Nicole Schuman is senior editor for PRNEWS. Follow her @buffalogal