In a groundbreaking decision, the UK Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) banned an advertisement for a Toyota SUV that seemed to endorse off-road driving practices that neglect the environment.
This move has been met with applause from environmental campaigners who see it as a significant step in challenging the promotion of off-road adventures in nature, a common theme in SUV advertisements.
The ASA's verdict, unveiled today, pertains to a paid Facebook post featuring several SUVs speeding across rugged terrain, accompanied by a voiceover proclaiming it as "one of nature's true spectacles." The ad then depicts the vehicles navigating a bustling urban landscape, concluding with a shot of a Toyota Hilux parked in a rocky, natural setting, with the voiceover declaring it as "Toyota Hilux. Born to roam."
The complaint lodged with the ASA came from the Adfree Cities campaign group and targeted the Facebook post and a bus stop poster ad from the same campaign. This poster displayed two SUVs ascending a rocky incline in a savannah-like landscape, with a backdrop of around 50 identical SUVs under the slogan: "Born to roam."
The ASA determined that these ads violated two UK advertising code of practice provisions. They were seen as presenting and endorsing vehicle use in a manner that disregards its impact on nature and the environment, hence lacking a sense of societal responsibility.
Critics have long accused car companies of exploiting images of the natural world to market their vehicles despite the well-established link between automotive emissions and environmental damage, including climate change and air pollution.
Toyota defended the ad, claiming that no reasonable viewer would interpret it as encouraging irresponsible driving in UK landscapes. They argued that the landscape resembled African plains, and the overall imagery resembled a herd of wildebeests.
The company explained that the slogan 'Born to roam' emphasised the car's off-road capabilities and adaptability to different terrains. They maintained that it should not be misconstrued as promoting environmentally harmful driving behaviour.
A spokesperson from Toyota said the car company "does not condone behaviour that is harmful to the environment".
"As part of its wide range of global vehicle offerings, Toyota caters for customers who require a mobility option for reliable use in the harshest of terrains - those people who operate in off-road and remote settings," the spokesperson said. "The vehicle footage in this instance was obtained in a non-UK location, on private land, with all necessary permissions, in a non-ecologically sensitive environment. The static image used in the display ad was CGI, having no environmental impact on that land."
But Veronica Wignall, co-director of Adfree Cities, said the campaign showed the company's "total disregard for nature and the climate" given it featured "enormous, highly-polluting vehicles driving at speed through rivers and wild grasslands."
"More and more SUVs are being sold on a false promise of rugged adventure, exploiting imagery of the natural world," she said. "In reality, SUVs are harming nature, polluting our air, clogging up our cities and causing tragic loss of life. This ruling is welcome, but regulation of SUV adverts is not enough; the promotion of SUVs should be terminated altogether."
However, Veronica Wignall, co-director of Adfree Cities, criticised the campaign, highlighting Toyota's "total disregard for nature and the climate." She pointed out that the campaign featured "enormous, highly-polluting vehicles driving at speed through rivers and wild grasslands."
SUVs like the Toyota Hilux X diesel model featured in the ad have emissions up to 2.7 times higher than EU targets for CO2 emissions for cars from 2021, according to AdFree Cities.
Andrew Simms, the co-founder of the Badvertising campaign, which co-signed AdFree Cities' complaint, said Toyota was using the natural world to sell cars despite advocating against policies that would protect the environment.
"Toyota's attitude to social and environmental responsibility skidded off the road years ago after its early introduction of a hybrid vehicle," he said. "Since then, not only has it lobbied to block the road to climate action and slow the greening of vehicles, it has been part of the profit-driven push to 'autobesity' - using extensive ad campaigns to get drivers to switch to bigger, more polluting and dangerous SUVs.
"Abusing references to nature to sell vehicles that harm people and the natural world is a road crash of corporate irresponsibility."
In a study from 2021, the New Weather Institute and climate action charity Possible revealed that SUVs are most popular in affluent urban areas despite being frequently promoted by carmakers and their advertisers as a means to escape into nature.