The ‘new tobacco’: Calls for ad ban as influencers spruik fossil fuel

Alongside holiday destinations and clothing brands, influencers are promoting fossil fuel companies.

Alongside holiday destinations and clothing brands, influencers are promoting fossil fuel companies. Photo: Instagram/@mariathattil

What do lifestyle influencers, reality show contestants and TV presenters have in common?

They’re all being paid to promote fossil fuel – an act which campaigners are hoping to ban in Australia.

Grant Denyer, Gogglebox Australia star Matty Fahd, former AFLW player Abbey Holmes and Miss Universe Australia 2020 Maria Thattil are among several local influencers who have promoted Shell Australia (whose service stations are owned by Viva Energy) to their tens of thousands of followers on Instagram this year.

Viva Energy is not alone in paying influencers for some positive exposure, with companies like ExxonMobil and Ampol making similar moves.


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A post shared by Abbey Holmes (@abbeycholmes)

From fashionably posed pictures spruiking fuel voucher giveaways to videos of sweet family trips to the petrol station, the paid partnerships may appear no different to the average social media advertisement.

But experts say the posts are attempting to sweep the climate impacts of fossil fuels under the rug and out of social media users’ minds.

Young Aussies’ fossil fuel concerns

The Australia Institute South Australia director Noah Schultz-Byard said online advertising is the “next frontier in the brand and cultural battle that the fossil fuels have been waging for generations”.

And the main targets of are young Australians, who are more likely to be concerned about climate change and the impacts of fossil fuels.

Recent national polling by the Australia Institute found 50 per cent of Australians aged 18 to 29 support a ban on fossil fuel ads, while only 19 per cent oppose.

“These fossil fuel companies aren’t stupid, and they know that they are in an existential fight for their lives,” Schultz-Byard said.

“They’re quite rightly concerned about what the next generation thinks of them.

“The reason that they’re having to get creative and go through these social media channels with influencers is because young people, frankly, don’t want to hear from them and will switch off the ads before listening to what they have to say.”

Calls for tobacco-style ad ban

Marketing and advertising climate advocacy group Comms Declare estimates fossil fuel companies (including coal, gas and gas) spent about $238 million locally on marketing in 2021 for everything from political campaign donations to digital advertising.

Comms Declare founder Belinda Noble said while far from the biggest spenders in advertising, the fossil fuel industry is trying to “normalise” its business despite growing of evidence of their negative impact on human health and the climate.


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A post shared by Grant Denyer (@grantdenyer)

“Advertising is extremely important part of their overall promotional plans to keep their businesses running,” she said.

“The marketing of tobacco, gambling, alcohol and even food is restricted across all three levels of government in recognition of the health impacts on the community.

“Critically, coal, oil and gas corporations are allowing unrestricted access to our media to sell these products that are damaging our health, environment and climate.”

CSIRO data shows Australia’s climate and sea surface temperatures have each warmed above 1°C since the 1900s.

The past few years have seen the country endure record-breaking floods and bushfires, and a national strategy is being developed to address the impact of climate change on Australians’ physical and mental health.

Noble said advertising and sponsorship regulations and bans similar to those imposed on tobacco products in Australia need to be imposed on fossil fuel products, in addition to stronger greenwashing laws.

Australian Energy Producers chief executive Samantha McCulloch emphasised the importance of the fossil fuel industry to the Australian economy.

“The oil and gas industry is one of Australia’s most important sectors, delivering energy security for millions of homes and businesses, jobs for tens of thousands of Australians and $16 billion tax to governments last year,” she said.

“Our industry is committed to and central to achieving net zero across the economy by 2050. The sector is supporting the transition away from coal by backing up renewables in electricity.”

However, some major industry players have managed to avoid paying tax; Australian Tax Office data shows during 2021-22, companies such as AGL, ExxonMobil and Chevron paid no tax despite making billions of dollars in income.

Ban not a silver bullet

Lucy Richardson, post-doctoral research fellow at Monash Climate Change Communication Research Hub, said social media advertisements associating fossil fuel companies with fun activities brush over their association with climate change.

She said banning fossil fuel advertisements alone won’t bring Australia’s emissions down to net zero.

But the move could still have a significant impact by reducing the appeal of fossil fuels; research shows  tobacco adverting bans have resulted in a 23.5 per cent reduction in per capita consumption of tobacco internationally.

There has been no moves at a federal level towards a ban on fossil fuel advertising, but some regional governments are taking matters into their own hands.

The ACT has banned fossil fuel ads on its trams, and at least 15 councils across Australia have voted for fossil fuel ad bans, including the City of Sydney and Melbourne’s City of Yarra.

Nation-wide fossil fuel ad bans are not unheard of internationally, with France becoming the first European country to ban fossil fuel advertising in 2022.

“Fossil fuel advertising is the new tobacco advertising,” Schultz-Byard  said.

“Eventually, there will be limitations and bans placed on fossil fuel advertising: It’s a question of ‘when’, not ‘if’.”


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