Fossil Fuel Companies Among Biggest Consumers Of Google Ads That Look Like Search Results | google

Fossil fuel companies and the companies that work closely with them are among the biggest consumers of ads designed to look like Google search results, in what activists say is an example of “rampant greenwashing”.

The Guardian analyzed ads shown on Google search results for 78 climate-related terms, working with InfluenceMap, a think tank that tracks the lobbying efforts of polluting industries.

The results show that more than one in five ads seen in the study – more than 1,600 in total – were placed by companies with significant interests in fossil fuels.

Advertisers pay to have their ads appear on the search engine when a user queries certain terms. Ads are attractive to businesses because they look a lot like search results: More than half of users in a 2020 survey reported that they couldn’t tell the difference between a paid listing and a normal Google result.

ExxonMobil, Shell, Aramco, McKinsey and Goldman Sachs were among the top 20 advertisers on the search terms, while a number of other fossil fuel producers and their financiers also placed ads.

Jake Carbone, senior data analyst at InfluenceMap, said: “Google lets groups with a vested interest in the continued use of fossil fuels pay to influence the resources people receive when trying to educate themselves.

“The oil and gas industry has moved away from challenging the science of climate change and is now looking to sway public decarbonization discussions in its favor.”

Advertisements from oil major Shell – 153 were counted in total – appeared on 86% of “net zero” searches. Many have promoted its commitment to becoming a net zero company by 2050 and aligning with a 1.5C warming target.

Google ads on the search term
Google ads on the search term “net zero”. Photography: Google

However, Shell’s net zero strategy relies heavily on carbon capture and offsetting, according to a Bilan Carbone, which says: “Despite its ‘highly ambitious’ framework…Shell’s vision of a continued role for oil , gas and coal until the end of the century remains essentially the same.”

A Shell spokesperson said: “Shell’s aim is to become a net zero emissions energy company by 2050, in tune with society. Our short, medium and long-term intensity and absolute targets are in line with the more ambitious 1.5°C target of the Paris Agreement. »

Goldman Sachs, which facilitated nearly $19 billion in loans to the fossil fuel industry in 2020, had the third highest number of announcements. The bank’s ads appeared on almost six in 10 searches for “renewable energy”, with many highlighting its “ongoing commitment to sustainable finance”.

Advertisements from consultancy firm McKinsey appeared on more than eight out of 10 searches for “energy transition” and four out of 10 searches for “climate hazards”. Its ads read, “McKinsey works with its customers on innovation and growth that advances sustainability.”

Along with its work on sustainable investing, the company receives significant revenue from its fossil fuel customers. In recent years, McKinsey has advised 43 of the world’s 100 most polluting companies, according to The New York Times.

A McKinsey spokesperson pointed to an op-ed written by a managing partner at the firm, which states, “There is no way to reduce emissions without working with these industries for a rapid transition.”

Aramco, Saudi Arabia’s state-owned oil company, which is the world’s largest oil exporter, had 114 ads on the keywords “carbon storage”, “carbon capture” and “energy transition”. A number of their advertisements claimed that the company “promotes biodiversity” and “protects the planet”.

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Methodology

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In collaboration with InfluenceMap, the Guardian has produced a list of 78 climate-related Google search terms. We Googled these keywords at least 19 times each over seven days from 11/15/2021 and recorded which ads appeared in a sample of over 10,000 (10,857) searches.

The Google searches were all done in London, which may have affected the results. Google’s “ads personalization” and “search personalization” features have been disabled, so that search results are not influenced by user activity. Google ad buyers compete on search terms in an auction; the more money they spend, the more likely their ad is to appear, so our dataset includes multiple instances of the same ad.

Companies categorized as follows were considered to have significant interests in fossil fuels:

  • Companies that produced, sold or distributed oil, coal or gas
  • Banks, investment funds, insurers, pension funds, etc. that finance or hold large investments in oil, coal or gas.
  • Trade associations for people working in the oil/coal/gas industries
  • Companies that do not directly produce oil/coal/gas but derive substantial revenue from these industries

Thank you for your opinion.

Melissa Aronczyk, an associate professor at Rutgers University, said: “Since at least the 1980s in the United States, public relations officers have made a very concerted effort to help polluting companies develop strategies to ‘go clean’. green” while maintaining the status quo.

“Many of the initiatives taken by companies are very piecemeal and will not correspond to any type of long-term or systemic change.”

Johnny White, a lawyer for environmental charity ClientEarth, called for stricter regulation of ads placed by polluting industries. “Fossil fuel companies spend millions on incredibly sophisticated advertising campaigns, so telling fact from fiction can be very difficult for the public.

“Harmful greenwashing has become rampant – to eradicate it we need to legislate a ban on all fossil fuel advertising, just like what happened with tobacco.”

The analysis also focused on “snippets”, which are free of charge but which are chosen by Google’s algorithm as the most relevant result. The Guardian found the excerpt chosen for ‘fracking’ linked to the website of an oil and gas lobby group, the Independent Petroleum Association of America.

Google snippet for
Google snippet for “fracking” Photography: Google

In response to the question: “Is hydraulic fracturing a threat to public health?”, the IPAA page states: “No. In fact, there is ample evidence that the increased use of natural gas…has improved public health by dramatically improving air quality in recent years.

A multi-year research by the United States Environmental Protection Agency concluded in 2016 that in some cases fracking had harmed drinking water supplies.

Unlike Facebook, Google does not have a publicly available ad library, which means it is difficult to analyze advertising on the platform. In the EU and UK, Google only provides full data on ads that directly mention politicians or a political party, or those that feature a referendum question.

A Google spokesperson said: “We recently launched a new policy that will explicitly ban ads promoting climate change denial. This policy applies to all advertisers, including energy companies and financial institutions, and we will block or remove all advertisements containing non-compliant content.

“When search ads appear, the word “Ad” is clearly labeled in bold black text in the current design. We rely on extensive user testing on both mobile and desktop to ensure ad labels meet our high standards for visibility and distinction of unpaid results. »

An ExxonMobil spokesperson said, “ExxonMobil has contributed to the development of climate science for decades and made its work available to the public. And as the scientific community better understood climate change, ExxonMobil responded accordingly.

Aramco and Goldman Sachs did not respond to requests for comment.

This article was amended on January 6, 2022 to add a response from Google relating to search ads that was received after publication.

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