One of the biggest, most controversial advertising events in the world, the Cannes Lions Festival, just ended. I was once there, as a winner and as a jury member. Last night I came back, but this time as a Greenpeace activist to return the prizes I won working for airlines and car companies and to peacefully call for a new law that bans fossil fuel advertising and sponsorship. I crashed the party, got banned from the festival, and made it awkward. This is my story.

White man with brown beard wears black t-shirt that says Ban Fossil Ads in white writing. Holds a sign saying No Awards On A Dead Planet. Man to his left gestures as if asking, what’s going on? A Greenpeace France activist and former winner and jury at the Cannes Lions awards - the famous advertising festival - interrupted the opening ceremony in Cannes to give back an award he won for an airline company advert.
A Greenpeace France activist and former winner and jury at the Cannes Lions awards – the famous advertising festival – interrupted the opening ceremony in Cannes to give back an award he won for an airline company advert. © Greenpeace

I received my first award at the Cannes Lions festival of Creativity in 2007. It was for a big car manufacturer and getting recognition for the creative work was a game changer for me and the agency I was heading. We were considered one of the best teams at promoting new cars and I felt nothing but excitement and joy when I went on stage to collect the prize. For me the award symbolised an achievement and proof that I was doing the right thing.

But soon things started to change. Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth told me and many others that we were heading towards a climate catastrophe and that excessive fossil fuel consumption had to stop. I felt that the industry had to do its part, so I accepted working for Scandinavian Airlines in a piece that encouraged people to travel by train instead of plane for short haul distances.

The ads for this idea were great and I was awarded at Cannes Lions once again. This time I felt relieved, as I was convinced the system worked: Great ideas could solve the crisis. The big polluters seemed to change for the better, and they needed great ads and talent to make it happen fast.

But did they actually change? In 2015, the Paris Agreement was signed. The same year the climate criminal Shell, helped by their agency MediaCom, was awarded a Lion prize for “best corporate sponsorship”. At that point Scandinavian Airlines had discontinued their train collaboration to focus on selling cheap airline tickets instead and got an award for a “fun social media experiment showing that people love to travel fast”. 

Since the Paris Agreement at least 300 awards have been given out at Cannes Lions to advertising for more air travel, to oil companies that greenwash and to ads that make cars with polluting combustion engines more desirable.

Now, in 2022 — and even in the face of appalling environmental consequences, wars and neo-colonialism perpetrated by the fossil fuel industry — major advertising agencies choose to keep colluding with climate criminals in order to delay the action we urgently need to tackle the climate crisis. For the first time this year, the IPCC report clearly exposed this deceive-and-delay strategy by saying that access to media through advertising is blocking scientific work and the much needed political action.

The strategy is also to blame individuals and focus on how THEY should solve the crisis.  BP’s ‘carbon footprint calculator’ inviting people to assess their own emissions is a crooked move to shift the focus to individual consumption instead of finding a solution for the systemic problems they created. 

This year Cannes Lions festival is promoting “Let consumers see their impact” as one of their focus areas for sustainability (you can find it under the headline “It pays to be green” on their website). Only a few agencies have internal restrictions or policies when it comes to making profit on helping the world’s worst polluters. They are even celebrating it on the French Riviera.

The advertising industry is acting like the “This Is Fine” meme: Enjoying their drink and acting like everything is fine, while the house is burning down. War on children? This is fine. Relentless droughts and floods? This is fine. Hottest summer in history? This is fine.

That’s why I chose to come back to the Cannes Lions ceremony this year, took the microphone and made the advertising award ceremony awkward. Cannes Lions claims to be the ‘Home of creativity’, I’m here to say there’s no creativity on a dead planet.

I gave the advertising industry more than two decades of my professional life. I can’t do that  anymore. I can’t accept that so much talent and money is spent on helping the fossil fuel industry literally get away with murder. 

Over 30 organisations have launched an European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI),calling for a new law that bans fossil fuel advertising and sponsorship in the European Union. If an ECI reaches one million verified signatures in a year, then the European Commission is legally obliged to respond, and consider implementing the demands into European law.

Together we can help change the advertising industry to the better and help stop all fossil fuel ads forever.

Gustav Martner is the Head of Creative at Greenpeace Nordic. He is based in Gamlestaden, Sweden. 

The original version of this article was published by Euronews on 21 June 2022.