Emission impossible: Greenpeace’s Cannes takeover

How the organization orchestrated a weeklong protest of fossil-fuel advertising
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· 4 min read

“No awards on a dead planet.”

That’s one of the messages protesters from Greenpeace shared during their protests at Cannes Lions this year. The goal was to direct attention to the climate crisis and call for an end to fossil-fuel advertising through different stunts, like crashing WPP’s beach.

WPP CEO Mark Read said Greenpeace was “right” to highlight the climate crisis, but the holding company intends to continue working with fossil-fuel giants, although he recently told Campaign that it does not want to “work with any energy company that seeks to frustrate the Paris Agreement.” Its current roster includes clients like BP and Shell.

Edina Ifticene, a campaigner for Greenpeace France, told Marketing Brew that Read’s response is exactly why legal action is necessary—and why Greenpeace is one of 40 organizations calling on the European Commission to ban advertisements from the fossil-fuel and transportation industries.

Shifting tides

While Read’s response didn’t exactly inspire hope, Ifticene said, “It’s a win already to have a response from [WPP] because it means that we had an impact somewhere and they felt questioned, they felt challenged, and they felt that they had to respond,” she said.

Over the course of the festival, Ifticene said she was also encouraged by the number of creatives from around the world who expressed support for the protests, telling her and her colleagues that they no longer wanted to work with companies that “destroy the planet.”

“Five years ago, I think people would still say, ‘Maybe the fossil-fuel industry and [companies] like BP and TotalEnergies can be part of the solution. Nowadays, they’re like, ‘No, we know it’s greenwashing,’” she said.

In his response to Campaign, Read asked, “​​If energy companies can’t market or talk about the steps they are taking to move to a low-carbon economy, how do consumers choose to work with the companies that do?”

The issue, Ifticene said, is that fossil-fuel and transportation companies can see advertising as a form of “soft power” to improve brand perception among consumers and decision-makers alike. According to a 2021 study by researchers at Harvard, “ExxonMobil advertisements worked to shift responsibility for global warming away from the fossil fuel industry and onto consumers.”

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Ifticene said Greenpeace targeted its protests at large holding companies like WPP, Omnicom, and Publicis, given how much money and power they have in the industry, as well as the executives who decide which companies to work with.

They also wanted to address the festival’s role in those decisions. By giving out more than 300 awards to fossil-fuel and transportation companies since the Paris Agreement, Ifticene said, “You are encouraging these agencies to keep working with [them].”

Not so fine

To get Greenpeace’s message across, Ifticene said a team of campaigners, action coordinators, comms officers, and more—led by UK creative Emily Buchanan—brainstormed and came up with a campaign message around the “this is fine” meme, which shows a dog sitting and drinking coffee in a burning room.

She said the dog in the meme “really represents the passivity, the denial of a dramatic situation,” Ifticene said. “And we felt like the ad industry is really in that position.”

Gustave Martner, a former Cannes Lions winner and current head of creative at Greenpeace Nordic, previously won two awards at the festival for work he did with Volkswagen and Scandinavian Airlines. As part of Greenpeace’s protests, he went onstage during the opening ceremonies to return his awards.

“We said, ‘That’s how we can talk to the entire audience,’” Ifticene said. “That’s a great story to tell because you used to belong to them, and they can hear you out.”

While Martner was banned from the festival, demonstrations continued and wrapped up with protesters placing a banner on the Palais about fossil-fuel ads “burning the planet.” With the event now done, Ifticene said more protests are planned to continue generating support for a potential ban in the EU.

As for whether the ad industry can regulate itself without the EU stepping in? “We’re not stupid. We know that corporate engagement doesn’t really work,” Ifticene said. “They start with a CSR engagement and then nothing happens and then they change their minds. And so that’s why we need regulations.”

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