Why a Council ban on fossil fuel advertising gives me hope

Cllr Ben Parker reflects on some important wins in the world of advertising and sponsorship.

Divestment is having a moment. In the same week the Edinburgh Book Festival dropped Baillie Gifford as a major sponsor, Edinburgh Trams confirmed they had ended their advertising contract with weapons manufacturer Leonardo and, following a process set out in a Green motion back in 2022, the Council (finally) agreed to prohibit fossil fuel companies and arms manufacturers from advertising on Council assets and from sponsoring Council events.

This is a big deal. Advertising is powerful – there is a reason that companies spend billions on it every year – and sponsorship is a form of endorsement, signalling what sort of companies, activities, or behaviours we approve of. So, whether it’s fossil fuel companies ‘greenwashing’ themselves through association with the arts, or major investment firms plastering logos over cultural events to distract from their less than public-friendly business dealings, it’s no surprise that companies are desperate to use public space to improve their image.

But actions from the past week show that people are finally waking up to this fact, not least the UN Secretary General who has come out to call for international fossil-free advertising too. Conservative voices will tell you that this is a dangerous assault on personal freedom and liberty. But, of course, no company has the right to use publicly owned assets to pump their own profits, and especially not when their business practices so drastically undermine the Council’s stated priorities and obligations to public safety and wellbeing. How can the Council support a ceasefire in Gaza, whilst taking money from companies who are profiting from designing weapons systems which target Palestinians? How can the Council talk about its commitment to climate justice whilst advertising flights, cruises, and SUVs on its property?

In a world of bad news, I’m proud that Council buildings, billboards and bus stops won’t be used to spread messages which fuel climate catastrophe and facilitate global conflict. I think the Council has a responsibility to consider the message it puts out to the world – shouldn’t that be for something positive, in support of a better kind of world we all want to see?