The AirFreez is a funky-looking cube that, according to its website, uses “hydro-chill technology” to cool air and purify it in a “totally eco-friendly way” by using water rather than chemicals.
It sounds too good to be true: a way of alleviating the record temperatures set to strike London and Paris this week with none of the negative effects of air-conditioning units that evacuate hot air and exacerbate rising temperatures outside. Consumers who love the environment but hate the heat have a solution.
The small problem is that the product, which looks identical to those sold under the names Arctic Cube and Fresh Air, doesn’t appear to work very well. Consumer advocacy group UFC-Que Choisir found in 2018 that the product’s cooling effects could only be felt at a distance of less than 70 centimeters from the cube. One YouTube video shows water leaking liberally through the unit and its battery compartment. “You have more chance of electrocuting yourself than cooling down,” one reviewer scoffed.
A gadget that over-promises and under-delivers is nothing new. But there’s a bigger pattern at work here. This is an example of the dark side of 21st-century e-commerce in which viral marketing campaigns – such as those miracle-cure ads bunched at the bottom of web pages – prey on the naivete of woke consumers.
A recent investigation by France’s Le Monde showed how vendors use slick virtual store-fronts to promote cheap imports from China as sophisticated technology. Welcome to “drop shipping”: Cut-throat, low-margin, and not always consumer-friendly.
The emphasis on climate-consciousness is a particularly telling development. Greenwashing, where companies talk up their products as sustainable and good for the environment, has been around for decades. But now it’s being weaponized as sustainability moves to the forefront of young shoppers’ minds. A booming cottage industry of green product labels – over 460 worldwide – has sprouted up as a result.
Consumers are receptive to visual signs of green advertising and promotion. In 2013, researchers Beatrice Parguel and Florence Benoit-Moreau conducted an experiment using different ads for the same car emitting the same, large amount of carbon dioxide. One vehicle was colored black, the other green and positioned alongside pictures of nature and foliage. The latter’s green visual cues improved perceptions of the car’s eco-friendliness, offsetting its grim emissions.
Social media offers an especially potent channel. There’s often more sophistication put into the ads than the product itself. Take “EcoFuel” – a car accessory supposed to improve fuel efficiency. A slick YouTube video tells the story of an engineering student called Mathieu Bertrand, supposedly kicked out of college in front of his shocked fellow students after inventing the gadget. “The big oil companies and automakers are hiding this from the world,” he says, as stirring violin music plays in the background.
Crack open the EcoFuel, though, and according to many online tear-downs, you’ll find a bunch of blinking LEDs and little else. The product looks as mysterious as the story promoting it: Mathieu Bertrand goes by the name of Lukas Weiss in the product’s German ads, or Victor Martinez in Spain, according to online fact-checker Hoax-Net.
Given the importance of the fight against climate change in Europe, as well as the recent history of eco-fraud – Volkswagen AG’s emissions cheating scandal, or the carbon-credits scam – it might be time to crack down harder on bogus marketing.
Facebook Inc. has wheeled out a self-reporting tool for misleading ads, but the company’s track record in this field isn’t reassuring. The nimble nature of drop shipping – myriad brand names for the same factory-ordered products that aren’t held in inventory – also makes it hard to control. Still, better information for consumers, tougher oversight of online marketplaces, and investment in genuinely climate-friendly air-con projects would help. Until those happen, expect the heat to play cruel tricks on the wallet.
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