Environmental Public Service Announcements Counter Green Washing

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Detergents have been linked to harmful environmental and health effects.


On the radio a young woman begins to sing what seems to be just another folk song. The tune is familiar enough, but the lyrics are unusually blunt. The song in part goes:

Don’t care about no sexy car;
I just want to see the sky;
Don’t want my kids to die.

As the music fades, an announcer states coolly: “Money is the language carmakers really understand. So this year talk their language. Don’t buy a new car. They’ll get the message. Brought to you in the interest of clean air by Earth Limited. “

A few years ago public service ads devoted to preserving the environment seldom went beyond the grumblings of Smokey the Bear and his obsession with preventing forest fires. Now, Smokey has a companion, Woodsy the Owl (Give a Hoot, Don’t Pollute). But even Woodsy’s days–and his gentle anti-pollution appeals–may be numbered. Groups like Earth Limited are highly skeptical of the soft-sell approach to public service environmental ads. They want “tough, straight-on” counter-commercials now . . . and despite considerable opposition, ads like the one above are beginning to get exposure.

True, only a handful of such hard-hitting commercials exist today (money to buy the time to air them is scarce) and most broadcasters refuse to run the eco-spots for free. But in the last year Earth Limited, a small group headed by National Lampoon associate editor Tony Hedra, has managed to find a few radio stations willing to donate air time and–in what could be a major breakthrough–CBS television has agreed to air three watered-down versions of the group’s ads on its national network.

“Unfortunately, CBS rejected three much tougher ads which we produced,” says Hedra, noting that one ad which CBS rejected had the Rev. Billy Graham advising consumers not to buy phosphate detergents. “They wanted us to be less specific. We were not supposed to name particular kinds of products.” Eventually CBS settled upon Barbara Streisand urging people to conserve electricity, Carol Burnett telling folks to walk more and drive less and Andy Griffith explaining the merits of keeping America beautiful.

“We were unhappy with the choice CBS made,” Hedra says, “but at least it’s a beginning.” Where it will all end is difficult to predict. Earth Limited is planning to produce a series of anti-car ads for national television next fall that promise to be even more pointed than the ones the group has produced for radio.

“If the networks refuse to air our new ads in the public interest, we will try to buy time to broadcast them. And if they refuse, we will go to court.” A court battle would probably be inevitable if Hedra actually pushed hard enough to air his anti-car ad and one of Hedra’s legal counsels would likely be Tony Westen, a young Washington lawyer who represents the National Citizens Committee for Broadcasting.

Westen recently filed a voluminous series of legal proposals to the Federal Communications Commission in an effort to establish legal guidelines for individuals and groups seeking to respond to “false, misleading, controversial or one-sided radio and TV commercials.”

Westen told MOTHER that he thinks there is a reasonable chance that the FCC will establish the guidelines although he does not expect a ruling for another year. Westen’s optimism is based on recent decisions by the FCC and the U.S. Court of Appeals that have compelled broadcasters to donate a substantial amount of program time to important national and local environmental problems.

In his proposals to the FCC, Westen seeks the right of an individual to purchase up to 100% of available commercial time to oppose specific claims made in paid broadcast commercials; the right of free access of up to 20% of commercial time to respond to product commercials under the Fairness Doctrine; the right to place such counter-commercials “back to back” with the specific product or claim to which they are addressed.

The third proposal alone could change the face of Madison Avenue. Corporate advertisers might well ponder the possibility of a counter-commercial like the one above following a 60-second pitch to buy a new Ford Torino.

As corporate advertisers and their critics squabble in the background, the average television set continues to be clicked on for 6 hours and 12 minutes each day. According to TV Guide this means that the average viewer watches some 200 TV commercials each day or about 5 million during a lifetime. 

When Suds Were Super and Worries Were Few

In 1947 the makers of Super Judy Suds soap powder bragged that one little box of their product was powerful enough to fill a 15-ton truck with soapsuds. The year could hardly be remembered as the dawning of a new age of consumer activism, but LIFE magazine–to its credit–was skeptical enough of the Super Suds people to challenge them to prove their claims.

So it came to pass that the Colgate Palmolive Company obtained a truck, lined its bottom with borax-softened water and scattered upon the waters the contents of one box of Super Suds.

A compressor pumped air through pipes into the truck, and as LIFE dutifully reported, “the truck began to bubble up like a seidel of warm beer.”

Ten minutes later Colgate technicians and vice-presidents were jubilant as the truck overflowed. It was the advertising coup of the year. In a 2-1/2 page spread LIFE recorded that “Super Suds had indeed told the truth.”

These days the truth about detergents is not so easy to record. Practically every detergent on the market seems to be linked with something catastrophic. Some are said to cause cancer; others to endanger the lives of little children; some to irritate the skin; still others to destroy life in rivers and lakes.

In the last 25 years laundry detergents have replaced soap just as modern automatics have replaced the old wringer-type washing machines. To get new clothes “whiter than white”, detergent manufacturers have resorted to a variety of complex detergent formulas, none of which has been shown to be both completely safe and effective.

In summary here is the latest status of several detergent ingredients that have caused controversy:

NTA, or nitrilotriacetic acid, is a real no-no these days. Banned outright by the government, NTA is alleged to cause genetic damage in humans. Although at one time the most promising substitute for phosphates, it may never be allowed back on the market.

ENZYMES are back. Reversing an earlier decision, the Food and Drug Administration reported last November that enzyme s could irritate the skin and cause lung damage–especially among workers in factories that produced the enzyme detergents. But the National Academy of Sciences-National Research Council concluded that “the average enzyme laundry product in normal use by consumers has not produced more primary irritation of the skin than have similar products that contain no enzymes.” Enzymes are bio-degradable (unlike phosphates), but they won’t get out all stains as some manufacturers have claimed. I don’t recommend you visit–much less work in–a factory where they make the stuff.

BORATES, CARBONATES, SILICATES are all very bad to eat. They are found in the so-called non-phosphate detergents. Last August a little girl in Connecticut swallowed a handful of a new highly caustic “non-polluting” detergent and died of suffocation within six days. The ingredients had burned away her windpipe. The government, fearing that as many as 39,000 children might swallow detergents this year, reversed its stand on phosphate detergents and once again urged their use. “My advice to the housewife,” said Surgeon General Jesse Steinfeld, “is at this time to use a phosphate detergent. The safest thing in terms of human health is to use phosphates.” A month later Steinfeld reversed himself again when he said that not all non-phosphates contain caustic ingredients. He also said that some phosphate detergents are just as harmful to swallow as their caustic replacements. In a moment of wisdom, Steinfeld recommended soap.

PHOSPHORUS, certainly the most controversial ingredient, is found in 90% of all detergents sold in America. Phosphates are nutrients that stimulate the growth of algae in the water and, in the last few years, thousands of tons of phosphates from detergents have been dumped into American waterways. Algae growth, which depletes the supply of oxygen in the water, has become so extensive in some areas that plant and fish life are nearly extinct.

The most popular phosphate detergent is Tide, made by Proctor and Gamble . . . the biggest advertiser in America and the largest seller of detergents. At this writing Tide still contains 12.3% phosphorus, which is about 3% more than most detergents. Although many detergent makers would settle for a limit of 8.7% phosphorus in detergents, Proctor Gamble has fought adamantly against such a ruling.

Meanwhile, the government’s recent espousal of phosphate detergents has caused a number of rumors in Washington. The one most often reported is that Bryce Harlow, formerly a chief congressional liaison for President Nixon, played a key role in convincing the government to reverse its stand on phosphates. Harlow is currently P & G’s top lobbyist in Washington.

SOAP, the one washday detergent of known safety, has fallen largely out of use. In soft water, soap is said to be just as effective as most detergents. It is still marketed and, indeed, heavy-duty granulated soaps seem to be making a comeback. But you will have to hunt for them in the supermarket.

RECOMMENDATION: If soap is not to your liking, Meryl Maler of Environmental Quality Magazine suggests that you try liquid organic cleaners. At the very least, check your detergent package and find out how much phosphorus it contains or, if it is a non-phosphate detergent, whether it is dangerous to children. Besides Tide, detergents I found in two local grocery stores with more than 8.7% phosphorus include Gain, Duz, Oxydol and Cheer.

Remember Amchitka?

The death toll from the underground nuclear test on Amchitka Island last November was minute compared to the dire predictions from many environmental groups. But the Atomic Energy Commission reports–in a summary that has been largely ignored by the press–that the blast did kill 18 otters, 4 seals, 16 birds and thousands of fish. Three or four bald eagles nesting sites along the Bering coast apparently were lost in cliff falls, and two were lost on the Pacific coast.

The AEC noted, however, that “eagles often change nesting sites, and it is not believed that the losses will affect population (of eagles).”

Meanwhile, in Washington, the AEC’s new chairman , James R. Schlesinger, tried belatedly to make peace with his critics. After the test he told a friendly House appropriations subcommittee that “most” environmental groups who sought to block the test “acted with great responsibility.”

In his prepared remarks, Schlesinger described predictions of earthquakes and tidal waves resulting from the blast as “melodramatic,” but during questions Schlesinger mellowed and at one point defended his critics. He specifically noted without elaboration that the National Wildlife Federation took “an exceedingly responsible position.”

A Conversation With Westinghouse

I’m on the phone with Westinghouse public relations man L.E. Rosenstiel, whose voice is a little shaky at first as he tries to explain his company’s latest ad campaign.

“Let’s put it in perspective,” says Rosenstiel. “Our message is: we don’t feel we’re in the appliance business anymore. We want to tell the consumer that we’re involved in improving man’s relationship to his home environment. That’s how we developed our new concept: Homecology. We are not just interested in selling products. We want to establish a dialogue between Westinghouse and the consumer.”

Rosenstiel makes it sound almost incidental that Westinghouse is using words like ecology and environment to demonstrate its concern for improving life at home, but critics in the media and among environmental groups are not so easily convinced.

To several of these critics, Westinghouse’s Homecology campaign is the most elaborate demonstration to date of a large company manipulating concern for the environment to sell its own products. In a six-page, fold-over, full-color advertisement, which has appeared or is scheduled to appear in TIME, NEWSWEEK and U.S. NEWS AND WORLD REPORT, Westinghouse peddles a variety of home appliances including a “mood bulb,” a burglar alarm and a new can opener . . . all with the claim that such products produce “a better personal environment.”

In probably the most unfortunate section of the ad, Westinghouse pictures a little girl in a white dress with a pink animal on her lap sitting next to a Westinghouse electric air cleaner. Beneath the picture, the caption reads: “Whatever it’s like outside, home air should be clean-that’s Homecology.”

Other names also come readily to mind. It is all vaguely reminiscent of the 1950’s when industry was telling us to be the first one on our block to build your own fallout shelter. There was a prevailing sense of exploitive defeatism about it all back then, and the sense continues.

In this present case Westinghouse seems to be playing–perhaps unknowingly–on the feelings of the apathetic consumer who thinks he can do nothing more than preserve himself and his home. That’s Homecology. The environment outside, Westinghouse seems to imply, is unimportant or, worse, doomed.

One question which arises: if an irrevocable temperature inversion does happen in your town, do you grin knowingly and invite the neighborhood children in to share your electric Westinghouse air cleaner?

So much for speculation. The week Westinghouse ran its ad in TIME, the WALL STREET JOURNAL printed a stinging article on misleading environmental ads. The author, Raymond Joseph, said that the Westinghouse ad featuring “environmentally hip new gadgets” did little but exploit concern for the environment.

Rosenstiel’s reaction: “Well, we expected some criticism from environmentalists, but we certainly did not expect the blast we got from the WALL STREET JOURNAL.”