ASA rules in my favour over EDF Energy's nuclear propaganda for women
Post date: Tuesday, 25th September 2012
I'm celebrating a minor victory. A complaint that I made about a series of promotions by EDF Energy on nuclear power to the Advertising Standards Association has been upheld.
It's long been known that the nuclear industry can't be trusted. Normally, this is assumed to concern matters of safety at nuclear power plants. I didn't think it would extend to the advertising pages of women's magazines. But that's exactly what has happened.
Below, I explain the nature of my complaint to the ASA, and then describe their response. As a result of my complaint the magazine in question has changed its practice and made it clear that the material provided by the nuclear power company is paid-for advertising and not intended to be objective or factual editorial. Because, as you will see, it was not...
Lies, damn lies, and advertising...
I complained about Marie Claire's use of advertising from EDF. A series of advertisements for nuclear power have been appearing in this "magazine for women who want to think smart and look amazing" over the last few months, designed in the same style as its articles, such that it’s hard to tell the difference at first glance.
Marie Claire, which is published by IPC Media, was also publishing pages on its website which appeared to be editorial, but were in fact provided by EDF, under the headline “Nuclear power: the facts".
As you can see when you click on this link to this page, it is now prominently marked "THIS IS A MARIE CLAIRE ADVERTORIAL". Before my complaint there was no such identification.
Since my complaint was first lodged, and I tweeted about it, many women have added negative comments accusing Marie Claire of providing greenwash to the bottom of the article.
Marie Claire linked to EDF Energy's website at the bottom of this page, giving the impression that this was objective information about nuclear power. It is now clear that that they are linking to a biased website.
EDF Energy is the only company currently seriously in the running to building new nuclear power stations in this country, including one at Hinkley, Somerset. However, it is in serious trouble because its other plants presently under construction are seriously overbudget and extremely behind schedule.
EDF is running this campaign because its market research has shown that it is women who are more likely to be opposed to new nuclear power stations than men.
Marie Claire has a significant readership amongst intelligent women; the last recorded circulation figure is 266,881.
The advertising campaign is quite clearly a “softening up" exercise for EDF, and perhaps part of the reason why DECC's ongoing survey about at public attitudes towards the industry shows a gradual mellowing.
Of course, EDF are entitled to respond to their research and the magazine is entitled to take advertorial, but it should be clear what it is, not blur the distinction, and masquerade company advertising as objective reporting.
Moreover, the advertisement in the July issue, about which I was complaining, contained inaccuracies. Here are the pages, with links to larger versions:
Alongside pictures of two female EDF employees who were being interviewed, photographed and styled in a way to make them look glamorous, were highlights from the interviews.
Sabrina Greenberg, PA to the Commercial Director of the Nuclear Newbuild Team, is quoted as saying that she used to work at DECC, but in fact she did not. She has worked at the Ministry of Justice as her LinkedIn profile makes clear. She has admitted this herself on Twitter to me ['@DavidKThorpe I didn't. Was an error on their part. I worked for the MoJ and on DECC content when working for the PRU'] (PRU= 'Temporary Research Assistant at Parliamentary Resources Unit ').
She tried to pin the blame on Marie Claire for the mistake. Giving the impression that that she worked for the Department for Energy and Climate Change clearly makes her seem more impressive as an officially sanctioned expert on nuclear power than her real career path.
Secondly, the other employee interviewed, Sheery Sassoon, gives the impression that nuclear power is exclusively responsible for powering the Olympic Park and the London Eye, when of course it is not. She is quoted as saying: “... an exciting time to be working in the nuclear sector ... EDF is leading the way in finding energy solutions. It’s powering the Olympic Park and the London Eye, which just goes to show how forward thinking it is”.
The ASA's judgement
On the issue that the Marie Claire magazine piece and similar entries on their website weren’t labelled correctly, the ASA said: “We discussed the web entry with Marie Claire, who agreed that it had not been correctly identified as an ad. They then immediately rectified the situation by adding the text “THIS IS A MARIE CLAIRE ADVERTORIAL” as it now appears".
"With regard to the magazine ad, we noted the text “PROMOTION” appeared in the top right hand corner of the page. Given the overall context of the page, including the ‘promotion’ label, we think readers were likely to understand that the piece was advertising material, rather than editorial. However, we have advised that this type of entry might be better described as an ‘advertorial’ or ‘advertising feature’, which removes any ambiguity."
This has not yet been done in the latest issue.
Turning to the interviews, and firstly the one with Ms Sassoon, the ASA responded to my complaint that this could give the impression that nuclear power was exclusively powering the Olympics as follows: "EDF explained that they had intended to convey the message that EDF powered the Olympic Park and the London Eye, but not that nuclear power was the sole source of energy for either site".
Well, I'll let you make your mind up about that, but I'm not convinced.
With regard to Ms Greenberg’s interview, the ASA said: "EDF explained that the piece had been written by Marie Claire’s own partnership teams following interviews with the subjects, rather than EDF themselves. They confirmed that, while Ms Greenberg had carried out work for DECC, she had not been directly employed by that Department, and acknowledged that the author had not captured this distinction.
"They regretted any confusion caused and have given an undertaking not to publish the material again in its current form. Changes have already been made to the online piece and EDF have agreed to act in line with our proposals in future material."
I cannot believe that the EDF would allow any artwork and text to go to print without first vetting it. Amongst these checks should have been one for accuracy of content.
The adjudication is listed on this page.
I note that in the most recent issue of the magazine, the format has changed. It is no longer in the form of interviews, but it's still making dubious claims, such as that in the 2030s “nuclear reactors in Somerset and Suffolk could supply around 40% of the country's energy needs’.
In your dreams, EDF.
Overall, the whole thing reflects badly not just on Marie Claire magazine, but EDF Energy. If it thinks it can pull the wool over women's eyes so easily it has another thing coming, as is obvious from the comments on Marie Claire's website.
For the record, below is a transcription of my complete Twitter conversation with Sabrina:
FYI @DavidKThorpe being noted as 25 is hardly patronising. Its a fact
David Thorpe: @Sabrina_Rachel The point is, men's age is rarely considered important to reveal in an article. You only feel that way because you're young.
Sabrina Greenberg: @DavidKThorpe the endeavour was to bring new blood into the industry so age was relevant to the article. I did not consider it pejorative
David Thorpe: @Sabrina_Rachel So, did you work for DECC?
David Thorpe: @Sabrina_Rachel If you don't answer my Q I'll assume you didn't work for DECC. Why did you say in Marie Claire you did then? Trust #nuclear?
Sabrina Greenberg: @DavidKThorpe I didn't. Was an error on their part. I worked for the MoJ and on DECC content when working for the PRU
David Thorpe: @Sabrina_Rachel On whose part? this was an advertisement EDF prepared for MarieClaire. I'd expect EDF to tell the truth in an ad.
Sabrina Greenberg: @DavidKThorpe if you are going to attack a company based purely on semantics you are in for a rather tiresome fight I fear
David Thorpe: @Sabrina_Rachel If you can't tell the diff between semantics & facts you're in the right industry. This is why people don't trust #nuclear Sabrina Greenberg:
Sabrina Greenberg: @DavidKThorpe sweetheart, I'm a PA, and a young one at that. Do you really think I hold any sway. Try again
David Thorpe: @Sabrina_Rachel Yes! You're cynically trying to influence the opinion of women in a popular mag. You're a lucky lady. Don't be disingenuous.
Sabrina Greenberg: @DavidKThorpe women can make up their own minds. Free will is funny like that
David Thorpe: @Sabrina_Rachel If you truly believed that, you would not bother to pay for and cooperate with the ads, or make them look like editorial.
David Thorpe: @Sabrina_Rachel E.g. this page is called "#nuclear energy:the facts" when it is far from being the whole truth. http://www.marieclaire.co.uk/news/lifestyle/536366/nuclear-energy-the-facts.html