Green from the Outside, Business on the Inside

Advertising, a medium that is accessible to most people, is a visual tool that allows for an “easy to read” message that is clear and understandable. Advertisements strive to show consumers a desirable idea. They reflect the time period in which they were created, making them ideal for analyzing how society perceived a specific subject as well as how this perception has changed over time.

Dr. Avivit Agam Dali, who received her PhD from the Hebrew University and now specializes in visual semiotics, conducted a study that demonstrates how Israeli society and culture have changed their regard to nature and landscapes through secular advertising from 1951 to 2014. Dali describes that landscapes function “as a symbol with ideological, social, and political meanings, enabling the viewer to learn about attitudes to ideas that are symbolized by locales.”

In this research study, Dr. Dali notes that landscapes selected in the advertisements can be looked at as “hieroglyphics” to past cultural, ideological, and social environments in order to understand the context of the time period, and how certain attitudes of Israeli society have changed over the years.

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Printed advertisements in daily news outlets such as Haaretz, Ma’ariv, Davar, and Yediot Aharonot were the focus of this study from 1951 – 1993. In late 1993, television ads became ubiquitous. Examples of companies whose ads were analyzed include Tnuva, Sonol fuel, and Marlboro cigarettes.

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Conquering the Wilderness

Prior to the establishment of Israel, Zionism had contradictory views towards the environment. Some immigrants viewed the land of Palestine in an almost romantic way, as a means to return to the land of their ancestors. Meanwhile, others looked at the environment as a bare desert that needed to be built upon and utilized.

“The advertiser represents an opinion of nature as something that needs to serve the population, not as something that needs to be preserved or loved. It’s just a tool,” says Dali.

After Israel’s independence in 1948, views became more aligned with transforming and developing the land. In advertisements from the 1950s – 1970s, the idea of “conquering the wilderness” was seen across the country, particularly through the use of  Israeli landscapes. The land was depicted as something that would serve the people of Israel.

People “conquered the wilderness” not only in advertising but in life as well. The Hula Valley in northern Israel, which once consisted of vast swamps and marshlands, was drained in the 1950s. “The main reasons for draining the Hula valley are to show the world that we could and to create agricultural land that no one could claim for themselves,” says Shai Agmon, manager of the Agamon Hula KKL Avian Research Center and site ecologist. “No one fought for land that was under swamps. As a Zionist, it was probably the most important project done in Israel, but as an ecologist, it was a disaster,” he adds.

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Environmentally-Friendly Advertising?

Eventually, a more environmentally friendly view was taken by society in the late 1980s, coincidentally, at the same time that the Ministry of Quality of the Environment was created. During the 1980s until 2014, the depiction of nature in landscapes changed to have a more environmentally-friendly tone.

Companies showed nature scenes from all over the world, not just Israel, in order to convey that they are “green” and “progressive.” They expressed how vital nature is and that consumers should take care of their environment. However, it can be looked at as self-serving, as these companies, including Marlboro cigarettes, are usually the ones who are responsible for pollution and who do not care about the conservation of nature.

“Advertisers are actually using nature to act on emotions to appeal to consumers in order to present an environmentally-friendly opinion. They say ‘let’s be green and recycle,’ but they are only increasing the problem of pollution with the products they are advertising,” says Dali.

Adi Wolfson, an expert in sustainability and professor at Shamoon College of Engineering, states that “consumers don’t understand that there are consequences when they buy a product.” They don’t feel these consequences, nor do they see them, so they don’t ask any questions. When advertisements speak about green-issues, they use the words ‘organic’, ‘eco,’ and ‘green,’ he says, just to appeal to people. “These words are problematic because consumers don’t really understand these concepts,” he adds.

During this shift towards environmentally-friendly advertising, many repercussions from “conquering the wilderness” became apparent. For example, after draining the Hula Valley, Agmon explains that fertilizers and organic soil now drained from the Jordan River to the Sea of Galilee, which created harmful cyanobacterial blooms. In addition, dried soil from the now drained Hula Valley was able to decompose, thus creating conditions where the soil would spontaneously heat up to such high temperatures that it would combust. This not only damaged agriculture, but produced organic ash that caused a greater influx of organic waste to the Sea of Galilee. Solutions were developed to curtail these problems, including raising the groundwater level and implementing all-year-round irrigation practices.

Another environmental issue that surfaced in the 1980s was the overconsumption of water. The population grew dramatically around this time, which caused a water crisis. “We were consuming more water and food. We were starting to run a more global system of growing crops that went abroad,” says Agmon. In response,  “we started recycled water irrigation,” he adds. Today, Israel uses the most recycled water in the world, at 85%. Spain and Portugal have the next largest consumers, at 52% and 27%, respectively.

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Research Limitations

“Because I am analyzing a picture, there is always the fear that I will be subjective. I did look at some of the ads as someone who didn’t live during the times, much like a historian writing a history book does, in order to be objective and form my opinion as if I was seeing these ads for the first time,” explains Dali.

Overall, there are likely gaps between the interpretations of advertisements from the original point of view of the company compared to that of the consumer. Therefore, historical literature was taken into account.

Advertisements in 2019

Bazan, based in Haifa, is Israel’s largest oil refinery company. They ran a campaign in the summer of 2019 that features two animated pelicans with slogans including “keeping a low environmental footprint like in Europe” and “there are rumors in the air and there are facts in the field.”

This advertisement was in response to backlash from residents and environmental organizations who have been affected by the pollution and angered by plans of the refinery’s expansion.

According to Wolfson, “for me, it is ok that every company pays for advertising. They are allowed to pay and tell their story. Every ad is not fully true.” However, telling something that is not completely accurate and ending up with a totally different story is problematic, he adds. This is the case for the Bazan ad.

In the last few years, Bazan dramatically decreased their emissions due to the reinforcement of the Clean Air Act by the Ministry of Environmental Protection. However, it is still one of the largest contributors to air pollution and morbidity in the Haifa Bay area. This “greenwashing” campaign tries to mislead the general public about Bazan’s environmentally unfriendly practices by explaining that they are contributing to Israel’s energy independence from fossil fuels. Meanwhile, the reality is that Israel still needs to import foreign fuel while Bazan exports half of its products, leaving Israel with its hazardous by-products.

“The problem that I have is when you say you have an overall 90% reduction in pollutants, you have to stand behind this number,” says Wolfson in response to Bazan’s advertisement. For research purposes, Wolfson asked Bazan to provide him with this data. “The numbers were not 90%. Just one of the pollutants was reduced by 90%, but the others were less than that. They cannot say that overall pollutants were reduced.”

In addition, Bazan’s claim to being one of the most environmentally-friendly refineries in Western Europe is only backed up by one study, says Wolfson, which was never shown to him.

ZAVIT* – Science and Environment News Agency

About the Author
Sarah Vorsanger is a writer and editor at ZAVIT in English, an initiative of The Israeli Society of Ecology and Environmental Sciences. Sarah is from New York, but now lives in Tel Aviv. As a writer for Zavit, she is committed to bridging the gap between science and public perception and strives to promote ecological awareness by making environmental research accessible and understandable to everyone.
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