Opinion: Perspective - Clients should be ready to back up any CSR claims

When Ogilvy, Jackie Cooper and Lexus PR were over-run by men in orang-utan costumes a couple of weeks ago, it seemed like a rather tenuous route to attack Unilever for its policy on palm oil.

The palm oil campaign was waged by Greenpeace and the point of the protest centered on the way the Indonesian rainforest - one of the few remaining habitats of the orang-utan - is being destroyed by palm oil farming.

As the world's largest corporate user of the product, Unilever was bull's-eye for the campaign, with Greenpeace insisting that the FMCG giant is a major contributor to the problem. As well as the orang-utan PR stunt, the campaign also included a viral ad spoofing the famous Dove "onslaught" ad, except the Greenpeace version is called "onslaughter".

Last week, Unilever was forced into a response, pledging to have all of its palm oil certified by 2015. Unilever's chief, Patrick Cescau, also committed the company's support for an immediate moratorium on any further deforestation in Indonesia for palm oil.

So, for Greenpeace, it's job done then. And it's not exactly bad news for Unilever, either. With green issues top of the social and commercial agenda, the whole affair has allowed Unilever to make a very public statement of its green ambitions.

The problem for big advertisers keen to push their cause-related marketing initiatives is that heads above parapets invite missiles and there are plenty of pressure groups looking for opportunities to give big corporations a drubbing over social and environmental issues.

Procter & Gamble has had a good taste of it in recent weeks. After enjoying being named America's most family friendly advertiser last year by the Parents Television Council, P&G has now been attacked by the PTC for sponsoring and advertising in some hip-hop shows that contain references to drugs, sexism and racial stereotyping.

Then there was all the furore over the gay kiss in P&G's US soap opera As the World Turns. Two gay characters in the show had a snog last month and pressure groups were outraged that such scenes should be allowed on daytime television. A seemingly bemused P&G ended up by inviting viewers to lodge their comments on the issue.

What's increasingly clear is that big advertisers can no longer duck emotive issues. Marketing, particularly in America but increasingly here, is more and more responsive to political and social concerns and the world's biggest advertisers are increasingly aware of their social responsibilities and, of course, the commercial potential that lies in exploiting them.

But not only do advertisers need to have a firm and clear (and public) stance on subjects such as climate change, racism and sexism, but they also need to be prepared for the inevitable backlash that such policies will attract.

For agencies helping their clients to navigate this minefield, the onus more than ever is on rigour. Last month's Advertising Standards Authority report highlighted the attention to detail now demanded of every green claim and the heightened public sensitivity towards images of violence or social disruption.

The ad industry has already been burnt by the fires stoked by the anti-obesity pressure groups. The default of blaming advertising for such problems as over-eating and alcohol abuse is now an established pattern.

Now if the power of advertising is to be harnessed to highlight clients' environmental or cause-related policies, agencies need to be super-sensitive to the potential backlash that could put ad freedoms back in the spotlight.

There's no doubt that there are competitive edges to be gained by clients who exploit public opinion on social issues, but there's also no doubt there's real risk too. Being lobbied by a man in an orang-utan costume is merely the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the potential pitfalls.

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