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Opinion 'The endorsement of cars by RTÉ celebs during a climate crisis shows poor judgement'

Seána Glennon says the judgement of ‘influencers’ promoting cars in a climate crisis should be called into question.

THE UNFOLDING CRISIS at RTÉ over the past few weeks has coincided with the hottest three days in the Earth’s modern history.

Amidst the furore about barter account spending, including €5,000 spent on flipflops, a lesser-discussed but vital issue has arisen: the moral and ethical responsibilities of the state broadcaster – and the public figures it engages – when it comes to the climate crisis.

First is the question of celebrity brand endorsements – in particular, celebrities acting as “ambassadors” for car brands. A host of household names, including Dermot Bannon, Baz Ashmawy and Lottie Ryan have entered into car endorsement deals over the past few years. Just recently, amid the RTÉ furore, Peugeot Ireland announced the RTÉ presenter Kathryn Thomas as its latest ambassador.

These public figures are entitled to enter into lucrative deals with car brands outside their RTÉ contracts. Yet surely one must question the wisdom of doing so in this climate – and not just the political climate.

What climate crisis?

The government’s Climate Action Plan 2023 aims to reduce carbon emissions by 51% by 2030. With private car usage accounting for the most significant carbon footprint, the plan calls for a “radical” transformation in how people in Ireland travel over the next seven years.

In this context, the judgment of celebrities working for the national broadcaster who choose to act as car ambassadors must be called into question, even if their actions are permitted under their terms of engagement.

Furthermore, the Public Accounts Committee last week heard that these endorsement deals must be approved by a line manager for staff members at RTÉ. Again, whether the ‘talent’ is a full-time RTÉ staff member or a contractor, we must question the judgement of a publicly funded broadcaster approving or turning a blind eye to these arrangements when the general public is simultaneously being advised to reduce their car use in the name of the common good.

The Green Party TD Brian Leddin this week called out the “murky” relationship between the state broadcaster and some of the entities that fund it, raising important questions about the influence of these entities on the programming that is produced and how it impacts public perceptions of the climate crisis.

A second big issue arising from the unfolding RTÉ crisis is the question of the propriety of car allowances as part of employment contracts in general, where car transport is not an essential element of the role.

In this era of climate urgency and constant exhortations to reduce emissions, coupled with the major increase in remote working and reduction for many workers of days spent in the office post-Covid, how can car allowances continue to be justified as a standard employment contract provision?

Research from Germany shows that the abolition of company car benefits is capable of significantly reducing transport emissions. From a commercial perspective, more businesses are also placing on the record their commitment to pursuing “environmental, social and governance”, or ESG, goals, in light of consistent data that consumers prefer companies committed to sustainability. None of this is new information, so why has it taken a crisis of this magnitude to cause the publicly funded broadcaster, and its frontline talent, to reassess their attitudes to these endorsements?

Force for good

Celebrities and the media have played an increasingly significant role in shaping public attitudes towards climate change since the mid-2000s. Research on celebrity involvement in climate campaigning published by Oxford University Press in 2017 highlights the power of celebrities to bridge the gap between science and politics: drawing public attention to the climate crisis and inspiring their fan bases to engage on the issue, by switching the focus from dry scientific data to a crisis of humanity that we can form an emotional connection to.

In more recent times, we have also seen the proliferation of “influencer” marketing, in which brands partner with social media personalities with large followings to promote their products. The influencer industry has experienced exponential growth over the past few years; this year, it was valued at $21.1 billion.

It comes as no surprise that the question of social responsibility has become bound up with the power of influencer marketing.

Following the lead of prolific celebrity private jet users such as Taylor Swift and Kim Kardashian, we now see the preposterous phenomenon of lesser-known Instagram influencers paying hourly rates to pose for photos on stationary private jets that they can post on their profiles, giving the impression of a luxury lifestyle, signified by an emission-spewing jet.

Yet, there are others who are taking their responsibilities as public figures more seriously. A group of celebrities including Emma Thompson and Richard Curtis have called out Wimbledon this week for its partnership with Barclays, writing an open letter decrying the acceptance of a sponsorship deal from a bank which is “financing and profiting from climate chaos”, arising from its multimillion pound support to oil and gas companies including Exxon Mobil, Shell and TotalEnergies.

We can also see current examples of Irish state bodies engaging influencers to use their platforms for positive change. Over the past three years, the National Transport Authority has paid podcast and social media influencers such as Blindboy and Tommy Tiernan to promote public transport. There is a lesson here for those TDs and senators availing of generous mileage rates for travel to Leinster House each year (some of whom expressed theatrical levels of outrage during the Oireachtas committee hearings last week). There is a real opportunity for these representatives to lead by example by choosing to take the train to Dublin instead of the car.

Climate change is the defining, standout issue of our time. A combination of the continued burning of fossil fuels and the return of the cyclical weather pattern El Niño means that we can expect to continue experiencing the hottest summer on record – and it is only getting hotter from here.

Perhaps in an ideal world, celebrities and influencers would not have the ability to shape public debate on such matters. The fact that they do, however, puts a tremendous responsibility on them to use their power to promote positive action – and an onus on our elected representatives to scrutinise more deeply the relationship between our state broadcaster and those corporate sponsors with a stake in the response to the climate crisis.

Seána Glennon is a lawyer, PhD candidate and Chief Outreach Officer at UCD’s Centre for Constitutional Studies, currently a visiting scholar at Osgoode Hall Law School, York University, Toronto.


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