Australian rivers feature heavily in festival posters and travel brochures. But with the real state of our rivers being close to appalling, is there a question of unethical advertising, asks Jeanavive McGregor.
Giant white letters float down clear rivers, skimming across rocks, running along currents before coming to rest on Sydney Harbour and spelling out the words “Sydney Writers’ Festival 2009” under the Harbour Bridge.
The ad, designed to highlight the festival’s famous location, is by Saatchi design and is being aired on SBS.
But an environmental action-group, Rivers SOS, says the ad also highlights a significant issue: the use of environmental images in advertising.
Rivers SOS believes the ad’s depiction of pristine rivers misleading in that it ignores the poor health of rivers in NSW.
Caroline Graham from Rivers SOS said: “Rivers in NSW are probably worse than anywhere. The Murray-Darling is in a state of collapse. Nineteen river systems in NSW have been damaged through mining that has been allowed to go too close.”
According to the submission by Rivers SOS Alliance to the National Water Commission this year, damage to the 19 rivers includes water loss, pollution and contamination.
In 2003 the NSW State of the Environment Report concluded that “NSW has the poorest aquatic biota condition of any Australian state or territory, with macro-invertebrate communities impaired along 50% of the length of rivers assessed.”
Three years later the same report found that across NSW there had been a drop in the condition of rivers, with only 22% of sites in reference condition or better compared with 56% of sites in 2002. (Reference sites refer to a scientific method that establishes a reference point of river condition in order to monitor the health of a river in the future.)
The report attributed this decline in river health in large part to the severity of the drought.
Last month, the Murray-Darling Basin Authority announced that the water flows of the Murray River between January and March were the lowest for that quarter in the 117 years that records have been kept. It blamed the decline on drought and warned that wetlands and floodplains were at further risk.
Graham said: “As I am really so aware of these issues, when I see an advertisement of a pristine river, my blood runs cold. I feel the people that use that are just showing that they are totally unaware of the reality of the state of our rivers.”
The festival ‘s general manager, Ben Strout, said: “The aim of the campaign was to highlight Sydney’s location for the festival, which is a draw for international writers in particular and to give the image of the confluence of ideas and words and writers like tributaries of a river.
“We used images of pristine rivers because the rivers themselves are beautiful. We are not saying anything about the rest of NSW’s rivers. It is just that particular image.”
Strout said although a few of the images were photo-shopped, any real material used for the ad was biodegradable and removed after filming.
Graham says although it is true you can find stretches of beautiful river, a great many are becoming degraded and damaged. She says too few people are aware of the state of the rivers.
“That is what we are up against in this Rivers SOS campaign,” she said.
“When I saw the Sydney Writers’ Festival ad I just thought here we go again, here is a group that is meant to be aware. They have environmental events on their program and they are doing what the mining companies do, showing us beautiful pristine rivers as if that was the normal state of affairs in NSW, when most of our rivers are degraded not only by mining but by a range of problems.”
Rivers SOS is campaigning for the NSW Government to create a safety zone of at least one kilometre around all rivers to protect them from further permanent damage from the effects of mining under or too close to river beds.
The environmental advocacy group Total Environment Centre is a member of the Rivers SOS Alliance. Its executive director, Jeff Angel, does not believe the river imagery used by the festival is a problem. “There are far more serious misrepresentations, with products claiming to be environmentally friendly that we need to attend to,” he said.
The centre is particularly concerned with the issue of “greenwashing” in advertising, whereby generic-type words and images are used to give the impression that a company or product is environmentally friendly.
It is a concern shared by advertising industry and consumer groups.
In February, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission released a guide for businesses and companies that market themselves as “green”, saying any such claims are subject to the Trade Practices Act’s prohibition of misleading and deceptive conduct.
In addition, last month the Australian Association of National Advertisers announced it plans to introduce an environmental claims advertising and marketing code. Similar to the codes applied to the marketing of alcohol, cars, food and beverages, the code will require advertisers to back up any green claims before they can use images of nature and declare themselves “environmentally friendly”.
Angel said: “Once we prevent the misuse of those general, warm and fuzzy words we can have a serious talk to the advertising industry about how they independently investigate claims made about the products they are being asked to advertise and about the sorts of questions the marketing people in companies should be asking about environmental claims.”
Dr Richard Crawford, senior lecturer in public communication at the University of Technology, Sydney, says that because advertising is fundamentally concerned with cultivating a desirable image, it is inevitable that attractive imagery will be used.
But he says both the client and the advertising industry have an obligation to consider the ethical ramifications of what they are doing.
“Exploitative greenwashing is a serious issue that threatens the entire advertising industry,” Crawford said. “If consumers cannot trust advertisers’ claims, then advertising fails.”
But the ethical priorities depend on what the images are being used for, he said.
“If the advertiser uses images of pristine wilderness to mask that they are selling toxic dumps, then the answer is yes [there is a problem]. Similarly, if a noted polluter is trying to greenwash itself at election time through such images, then there is also a problem. Fraudulently suggesting that an advertiser is green is wrong, and it should be punished accordingly.”
“However, other advertisers seek to use this imagery to evoke beauty, serenity or Australian-ness. To say that this is an ethical issue in these circumstances is laughable.”
Crawford said it is no surprise advertising attracts criticism, since it is in the public arena and inevitably attracts different opinions.
He said: “While there may be a point that the Sydney Festival ad ignores the problems with NSW rivers, it is a flimsy one. It could equally be argued that the advertisement ignores writers – not a single one appears in it!”
But Graham said: “To those of us who know the real state of play, the use of images of pristine rivers demonstrates an ostrich-like lack of awareness and concern.
“It is letting people think that NSW is full of these beautiful, pristine rivers, instead of these pumpkin-coloured degraded, cracked, damaged, waterways.”