Seeing Through the Forest of Environment-Themed Ads

It’s hard to tell what some manufacturers are selling these days. Chesebrough-Pond’s Timotei Shampoo runs ads of beautiful scenes, offering to plant “up to 50,000 trees or flowers” in California’s parks or help restore Yosemite’s meadows. Minute Maid pictures a green glade and a sapling, which they want to plant “in your name” in Redwood National Park.

“The decade of the environment is upon us,” observes Elliot Gruber, director of development for the National Parks and Conservation Assn. in Washington. “A lot of corporations are looking to tie into it.”

Their method is “cause-related” marketing, the last decade’s innovation. At its worst, it was hype, typified by credit cards promising an associated good cause 25 cents for every $100 charged. At its best, it directed some private sector profits to conservation, education, sports.

But ads promising one thing and selling another can be confusing, and the so-called green consumer can be pretty green. If the trend continues, and everyone with a gimmick jumps in, serious manufacturers had better make their offers clearer, and consumers and recipients of the largess had better pose more rigorous questions.


Some ads are pretty straightforward: If the consumer sends in proof of purchasing nine boxes of juice, a special coupon and 75 cents, Minute Maid will match the money, and the $1.50 will get a seedling planted in Redwood National Park. What’s more, the project is real and well-defined, with no soft center.

Minute Maid’s expected 0.05% return on 42 million published coupons will bring orders for about 21,000 trees, requiring matching funds of almost $16,000. (This is probably the smallest cost in the promotion--the coupon-bearing ad runs more than $500,000--but then, planting trees isn’t Minute Maid’s prime goal.) Gruber’s group will handle the arrangements, and the park will get one year covered in its ongoing program to plant 20,000 trees a year.

Timotei Shampoo’s buy-a-bottle-give-a-tree offer is similar and seems equally straightforward. But it isn’t what it seems, and the toll-free number offering more information has almost none (what kind of tree, what parks, how much from each purchase will be donated).

In fact, the shampoo (the name means “grass” in Finland, where it originated) had already begun making donations as part of its move into the U.S. market last year. Last fall, it gave San Francisco’s Friends of Recreation and Parks $11,000 to put 50,000 spring bulbs and 50 trees in Golden Gate Park, and gave Los Angeles’ Griffith Park $11,000 worth of trees and shrubs. This spring it’s giving Yosemite $50,000.

Nice subsidy. But it’s not, as posed, a purchase offer, asking consumers to get personally involved and buy a bottle. It’s simply a promotion, money spent to “stimulate” sales that would be spent anyway. Why the pretense?

The selling of Rainforest Crunch (“Help Save the Rainforest and Eat Great Buttercrunch at the Same Time!”) is so complicated, so loaded with environmental baggage, that consumers need a pamphlet to explain their purchase. The product had its genesis at a Grateful Dead benefit at which Ben Cohen of Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream met a Harvard-based anthropologist from Cultural Survival, a “human rights group” working in Brazil’s rain forest.

The result: Community Products, a Vermont-based candy company that buys its nuts, through Cultural Survival, from native cooperatives, thus supporting continued life in the rain forest for both its people and its trees. In addition, the company promises 20% or 40% (depending which side of the box one reads) of its future pretax profits to “rain forest-based preservation groups,” 20% to environmental groups supported by San Francisco-based Working Assets, an ecology-minded money market fund, and 20% to “1% for Peace,” a group that lobbies to redirect 1% of the military budget to peace activities.

This is all good stuff, but hard to follow and hard to see. One can check on the bulbs in Golden Gate Park, the saplings in the redwoods; but these benefits, like foster children across the world or an idea whose time is yet to come, are not readily verifiable.

Many of these, naturally, are “trust us” campaigns, the more so when the pitch precedes the program by some distance. Virgin Atlantic Airways is already publicizing its promise to plant a tree for every ticket bought in 1990 on its new Los Angeles-London route.

But the flights start May 16, and there’s still no specific planting, project or donation. It “might be one tree per ticket,” says a spokesman, and it might be $1 per ticket (tickets are $499 economy round trip, $4,000 non-economy). Money, says Virgin Atlantic, will go to the Earth Communications Office and TreePeople in Los Angeles, but arrangements aren’t set. “We have a gentleperson’s agreement,” says TreePeople Vice President Katie Lipkis.

Even the recipients of such funds may not know for sure what they’re getting, or getting into, and “a lot of environmental groups are re-examining their corporate giving guidelines,” Gruber says. NPCA has set up a committee to review the corporate offers coming in “a couple of times a week” and has already turned some down, he says, including a paper manufacturer that “had an interest in a dam in a national park.

Even Minute Maid presented NPCA with “a hard issue” because its juice boxes are only 70% biodegradable paper. “Do we say we don’t like the package, we’re not going to do the program?” asks Gruber. “If a cigarette company wanted to take an ad out in our magazine, we’d say no, but what if they wanted to give us a million dollars?”

Perhaps the only group clear about what they’re giving and what they’re getting is the manufacturers. And if that balance ever becomes unclear, they can always go back to selling the qualities and benefits of their products.