Greenpeace wronged by ASA | The Jackal

4 Apr 2012

Greenpeace wronged by ASA

Today, the NBR reported:

The Advertising Standards Authority has upheld a complaint about a Greenpeace that claimed the Rena oil spill killed 20,000 birds.


The board said the advertiser was assuming a lot of the consumer to understand that the figure purported as fact in the advertisement had been derived in such a manner.

As such, the ASA said the Greenpeace ad was likely to mislead and deceive consumers.

Most people will recall the Greenpeace adverts that appeared after the Rena disaster that occurred on Wednesday, 5 October 2011.

In my opinion, the complaint from well-known climate change denier Bryan Leyland has ulterior motives... He's a founding member of the Climate Science Coalition, New Zealand's leading climate change denial organization and has no scientific credentials at all.

Despite this fact, the Advertising Standards Authority considered (DOC) his complaint in the context it was made:

The Complaints Board was of the view that the statement “20,000 birds were killed” was expressed in a manner that denoted a strong absolute statement of fact. It said that the Advertiser had presented a best practice estimate as an absolute fact when as they had stated in their response to the complaint it had only been “reported that over 2000 birds had been identified which had died as a direct result of the accident [Rena]”. Accordingly the Complaints Board said the statements expressed in the advertisement were not clearly distinguishable as opinion (as opposed to fact) and therefore the advertisement was in breach of Rule 11 of the Code of Ethics.

Greenpeace made the statement because 20,000 bird deaths is the best estimate based on expert advise. There is no legislation that says you cannot state a widely accepted estimate as fact. Unfortunately Greenpeace fail to mention this in their response to the complaint:

As B. Leyland recognizes, the dead birds found are likely to constitute but a fraction of the actual number killed. Dr Brett Gartell, manager of the National Oiled Wildlife Response Centre based at Massey University (NOWRC), the official bird recovery, autopsy and cataloguing authority for the Rena disaster has reported that over 2,000 birds had been identified which had died as a direct result of the accident.

The estimated figure of 20,000 birds is based on UK and US research which has found that in instances of oil spills, bird carcasses recovered represent only approximately 10% of actual fatalities,

It is never possible to calculate wildlife fatalities resulting from disasters of this type with any great precision. It is accordingly reasonable to assume that any figure used in respect of total birds killed as a consequence of the Rena's stranding will be an estimate, and Greenpeace is of the view that the general member of the public will have understood the figures used in the Advertisement in this way. The 20,000 estimate is robust and is consistent with, for example, the 20,000 estimate quoted by the National Oiled Wildlife Rescue Centre figures, 2 and Greenpeace stands by it.

I certainly realised that it was an estimate because I had seen the reports that over 2000 dead birds had been recovered. Although the fact that many more birds die without being recovered wasn't as widely reported, any reasonable person would understand that the Greenpeace advertisement was concerned with total deaths, of which only an estimate can be provided.

The Complaints Board said that the statement “20,000 were killed” was a very strong statement and in its view was a long bow to draw particularly when the practice was based on UK and US research which would involve different bird breeds and populations to name just a few variables. The Complaints Board further added that the Advertiser was assuming a lot of the consumer to understand that the figure purported as fact in the advertisement had been derived in such a manner. As such the Complaints Board were of the view that the claim that the Rena oil spill had killed over 20,000 birds was likely to mislead and deceive consumers and was therefore in breach of Rule 2 of the Code of Ethics and as such the advertisement had not been prepared with a due sense of social responsibility as required by Basic Principle 4 of the Code of Ethics.

This seems like a very dubious reason to uphold the complaint. It's likely that more birds died in the Rena oil spill disaster than estimated due to a denser population because many had returned from overseas and were breeding. It's highly misleading to claim that birds in the UK or US would respond differently to oil contamination than birds in New Zealand.

In fact it's deceitful to say that birds in the UK and US respond differently, when there is no scientific evidence to uphold such a claim.

I presume the ASA will now be applying their reasoning retrospectively to National's claims that we will return to surplus by 2014/15. John Key's pre-election promises are based on estimates only as well, although he states them as fact all the time. Talk about a lack of ethical standards ASA.