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Oil patch yogurt ad not misleading, council says

Grasses grow at a new wetlands area on ground that once contained a large toxic effluent pond at Suncor Energy Inc.'s Wapisiw Lookout.

Nathan VanderKlippe / The Globe and Mail

The Alberta oil patch has avoided potential embarrassment after Advertising Standards Canada ruled that an advertisement that compared toxic oil sands effluent to yogurt did not mislead viewers.

The Sierra Club of Canada had complained that the ad was a "greenwashing" attempt to untruthfully make the oil sands sound environmentally benign. The ad featured a Suncor Energy Inc. employee named Shelley Powell, who in a spot about tailings - a key issue confronting the oil sands - said they are "essentially like yogurt."

The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, which created the ad, said Ms. Powell was attempting to describe the consistency of tailings. Advertising Standards Canada, which uses volunteers from advertisers, ad agencies, media and the public to consider contentious promotional material, agreed.

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"Following an extensive review of the commercial, the majority of Council did not find the particular claim in question was misleading in terms of the [Canadian]Code [of Advertising Standards]" the Janet Feasby, vice-president of standards, wrote in a letter Monday. "They found that Ms. Powell's reference to yogurt referred only to the apparent physical consistency of the tailings and did not humanize or soft pedal the more controversial aspects surrounding tailings."

CAPP has since pulled the English version of the ad, although the French version - complete with a comparison to yogurt - remains on its website.

That appears to contradict the spirit of the ad standards ruling, which said in its letter to the Sierra Club that it was pleased "to learn from the advertiser that this commercial had been withdrawn and replaced by another that does not make any reference to yogurt. In Council's unanimous view, the commercial as amended should remove the potential for any unintended and unwarranted message being communicated by the commercial."

CAPP, however, said the French version more clearly communicates that "yogurt" is meant solely as a consistency comparison. The industry plans to begin re-airing the English version, minus the yogurt reference, soon.

"The French translator clearly understood the consistency simile, Advertising Standards Canada clearly understands the consistency simile. If some members of the activist community believe we are suggesting tailings are good to eat, that is not our intent," said Janet Annesley, CAPP's vice-president of communications.

"We will now air the reclamation proof ad and we hope that the environmental community will focus on the technological and environmental improvements in the oil sands industry, rather than on yogurt."

Sierra Club executive director John Bennett nonetheless called the ruling, which was not unanimous, a "victory" for Sierra.

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"When we criticized CAPP, CAPP withdrew the ad from both the website and from broadcast. Clearly, they got the message that the public thinks this is misleading, whether or not the advertising council agrees with us," he said.

CAPP research has found that a series of ads, which were launched in April and feature real oil sands employees discussing the greener side of their work, have had the desired effect. One poll found that half of all viewers came away with a more positive impression of the oil sands.

The ads have, however, been controversial, especially among environmental groups who see them as papering over the negative effects of an industry that has scarred parts of the north-eastern Alberta landscape and is the single-largest source of growth in Canadian carbon emissions.

Greenpeace recently launched a "culture jam" contest to have people re-mix the ads to emphasize the negative attributes of the oil sands and "to make sure CAPP doesn't get away with its latest dishonest game."

One "jammed" ad mocks another of the CAPP ads, which compares the consistency of heavy oil to peanut better.

"We have also discovered that the more you eat peanut butter, the more likely you are to generate greenhouse gases. Just like heavy oil!" says the ad, which closes with a tagline: "CAPP: Screwing up your future."

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Another, which uses a photo of an oil sands employee in an oil sands ad, uses a modified banner text to say: "Even though I look healthy, I will probably die of cancer."

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