Clean Creatives is a non-profit fighting climate change by pressuring ad agencies and the industry itself to stop working on fossil fuel clients. These clients include companies like Shell, BP, Chevron, and Exxon, as well as other companies involved in the business of fossil fuels or representing their interests. With active fossil fuel producers responsible for 3/4 of global emissions since 1988, any negative impact on their advertising effectiveness will have an outsize impact on total global emissions.
The primary audience of Clean Creatives is unique: the people in the advertising/PR industry. One of our biggest challenges is to continue to find novel ways to reach this discerning group and convince them of the need for bold action rather than half-steps.
Ad Net Zero is an industry group supported by the biggest holding companies, framed as “advertising’s response to the climate emergency.” While we agree on the climate emergency, they are focused on actions that are responsible for a tiny percentage of the total impact the industry as a whole has on global carbon pollution. Small wonder, when those holding companies are taking in billions from fossil fuel clients like Exxon, Chevron, and Shell.
Clean Creatives has an annual budget that would be a rounding error for any one of the companies listed on the Ad Net Zero page. With zero budget to spare, our goal was to hijack their messaging on the eve of their expansion to the US.
When we first discussed how to respond to Ad Net Zero, a group with several dozen billion-dollar companies as members, we did what any person might do when researching a brand or deciding where to eat: we attempted to go to their social media pages. What we found was surprising: not only did they not have active Instagram or Twitter pages, they had not even bothered to reserve @adnetzero accounts.
We saw this as an opportunity and immediately reserved the @adnetzero accounts on Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok. We locked them down and did not put any identifying info linking them to Clean Creatives, waiting for the right moment to reveal ourselves.
In February 2023, we learned that they were planning a major launch in the US market. Their launch went ahead as scheduled…but not as planned.
Instead of trying to parody or impersonate Ad Net Zero, we decided to walk a different path. We offered a simple bargain: once Ad Net Zero adopted a clear plan for reducing their members’ work with fossil fuels, we would hand back the @adnetzero accounts. Until then, we would use them for strategic counter-programming about the impact of their members’ work for fossil fuels.
As soon as their press releases went live, we also launched with our @adnetzero accounts. Our content walked through all the ways that Ad Net Zero sponsors’ work with fossil fuel companies was undermining their climate goals. We spent the day telling the story we thought needed to be told - while our targets amplified us.
This played haywire with their launch, as their partners and press were either forced to hashtag #AdNetZero or accidentally tagged @adnetzero and sent them to our page instead, where we could explain to their followers the shortcomings in Ad Net Zero’s frameworks. We think this strategy is a campaigning first — and with a non-profit David successfully taking on dozens of Goliaths at once.
Our offer to return the accounts still stands, but has yet to be accepted.
When done right, proactive account parking has often been a newsworthy pursuit, but our big twist added to the impact. Since we waited to reveal what we were up to until our targets were attempting to have a PR moment, we stole the show. Every news article about Ad Net Zero’s launch talked about Clean Creatives and our stunt, which made it a much bigger news story too. We got 729,493 potential earned media impressions on a budget of zero. Not too bad!
We still own the pages and anyone who looks up @adnetzero on Twitter or Instagram can learn the truth behind the focus of Ad Net Zero and what they don’t want you to know — that their mission is too little, too late on a planet that is overheating. And, worst of all, Ad Net Zero’s paychecks are being paid by companies that are themselves being paid by the gas and oil industry. Talk about a conflict of interest! If the ad industry truly wants to be net zero, they will have to first address the elephant in the room — their fossil fuel contracts.