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Does less plastic advertising equal more issues for plastic?

By: Steve Toloken

June 19, 2014

People who’ve been around the plastics industry in the United States a while remember the “Plastics Make It Possible” television advertising campaign the industry ran from 1992 to 2005.

In those 13 years, the American Plastics Council spent more than $250 million on national, prime-time TV ads to talk about the benefits of plastics.

The blitz started as a response to public concern about solid waste and the environment, and to companies like McDonald’s eliminating polystyrene packaging.

The ads were a major expense for the industry, but according to opinion polls from APC, they helped make public attitudes more favorable by emphasizing health and safety benefits of plastics and reducing negative perceptions that could make consumers not want to buy plastic products.

The advertisements were ultimately dropped when budgets got tight and the American Chemistry Council, the parent group of APC, shifted the money to an ad campaign for the chemical industry.

Step forward to today. There’s a lot more political pressure on the plastics industry, and I wonder if the end of those ads plays a role in that.

Bags bans and fees have spread around the world, including to at least 80 cities in the United States.

There are now more concerns, legislation and product de-selection debates surrounding plastics and chemicals, whether it’s plastic marine debris, plastic microbeads, bisphenol A or endocrine disrupters.

When I worked for Plastics News in Washington, D.C., I wrote stories from internal APC documents that showed that when the group reduced ad spending, public opinion would be less favorable toward plastics.

Back in 2005, industry leaders acknowledged they were taking a risk by folding their successful plastics ads into the chemicals campaign.

But those involved in the efforts, including Robert Wood, then-chairman of Chemtura Corp., and Greg Wilkinson, then-vice president of public affairs at Nova Chemicals Inc., said it could be managed.

With budgets tight, there were good reasons for the big resin companies paying for the ads to want to change.

The plastics campaign had worked and the chemical industry had a public approval rating similar to tobacco manufacturers and nuclear power. Not a good place to be.

This isn’t an esoteric debate; whether people and brand-owning companies perceive polymers as an overall good for society or not is a pocketbook issue for plastics processors.

According to APC, its campaign helped move public favorability ratings about plastics from the low 50s, considered lukewarm, to the much stronger mid-60s range.

And it helped lower the percentage of people saying they avoid buying plastic products from 37 percent to 26 percent, according to a 1998 PN interview with the research firm that helped design APC’s campaign.

On the other hand, APC officials noted that when they cut spending in half in 2004, to $10 million, they didn’t see any significant impact.

Of course back then, APC executives acknowledged that outside California, there wasn’t much public pressure on plastics in the United States.

The group no longer does opinion polls that rate the public favorability of plastics, so we can’t really know how attitudes today compare to back then.

And the media landscape is very different now. With the rise of Facebook, YouTube and other social media, ACC said it shifted from advertising to using those new platforms to engage directly with people.

“Consumers are seeking more information on plastics than an advertising platform can typically deliver,” said Steve Russell, vice president of plastics for the Washington-based ACC. “We believe that the social and digital media tools available today provide a more direct way to connect with consumers on important topics such as environmental protection, recycling, energy savings and sustainability.”

Five years ago, ACC started a new “Plastics Make it Possible” web and social media campaign to emphasize the positive role of plastics.

Here’s Russell again: “From rapidly growing opportunities to recycle to the role plastics play in increasing fuel and energy efficiency to helping to solve the major environmental questions of the day, this industry has a lot to be proud of.”

The industry, too, has changed. Money is tighter and the companies that would write the checks for any big advertising program are more global. I’m not sure they’d pay for another campaign like that.

Environmental groups raise legitimate questions about the sustainability of our society, about pollution and about how we use energy, so I’m not going to label them “anti-plastics.” I don’t buy that polarizing argument.

But back to my main point, it does seem like you would have to do an awful lot of blogging, ‘liking’ on Facebook and Tweeting to get the same impact as the $15 million to $20 million a year that was spent on advertising.

So, I wonder, did the end of the plastic ad campaign make it harder for the public to hear the industry’s legitimate points?