Episode 119: Should SUV Ads Be Banned?

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Veronica Wignall: Any adverts using nature to sell people large diesel trucks, given the state of the climate crisis and our cities, is socially irresponsible.

Sarah Goodyear: Welcome to The War on Cars. I’m Sarah Goodyear. Today I’m going to be talking with Veronica Wignall and James Ward, both of whom work with a UK grassroots advocacy group called Adfree Cities. Adfree Cities works to eliminate corporate advertising from public spaces, aiming to create happier, healthier cities free from the pressures of corporate outdoor advertising. A lot of their focus is on billboards and kiosks and bus ads and the like, but last fall, they launched a campaign against a specific SUV ad for the Toyota Hilux. This is the kind of ad that we all see all the time, showing SUVs ripping through landscapes, tearing through cities, engaging in the most reckless and destructive behavior.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, advertisement: One of nature’s true spectacles. New Toyota Hilux: born to roam.]

Sarah: These ads drive me crazy, and I’ve never thought that I could do something about them. But the people at Adfree Cities have done something. That’s why we have them here today. Veronica Wignall and James Ward, welcome to The War on Cars.

James Ward: It’s great to be here. Thanks for having us.

Veronica Wignall: Yeah, thanks for having us.

Sarah: Maybe you could just start by telling me about the history of Adfree Cities, how it came to be and how it has evolved, and how this particular campaign came into being.

Veronica Wignall: Adfree Cities is a network of UK grassroots groups who all work in their respective cities to reduce the amount of outdoor corporate advertising that we see by blocking new billboards or moving billboards with the help of local councils. And we also work a lot on looking at which kind of adverts are particularly harmful, especially in our outdoor spaces where we can’t avoid them, can’t turn off the TV, or you can’t turn over the page, and sort of surrounding you everywhere you go. And Adfree Cities grew out of one of those groups, Adblock Bristol, which is in the southwest of the UK. And Adblock Bristol really flourished, had a lot of success with working with local people to talk about how advertising affects us. And then that grew into the fully-fledged Adfree Cities network, which has been up and running since 2021.

Sarah: Why this ad? Why the Toyota Hilux ad, and how did that come to your attention?

Veronica Wignall: There’s a lot of car advertising out there, and a lot of it is really problematic, just starting from the premise, really, that it’s nudging us to buy more and more cars at a time when we need to move away from car culture. But this particular advert caught the eye of some of our grassroots activists in Bristol, who walked past the paper version on a bus stop ad. So you might think it’s pretty counterproductive to advertise massive diesel SUV cars on a bus stop public transport network, so that caught our eye to start with. And then as we looked at the content of the advert—this really giant car moving through a series of natural landscapes, and then from the outdoor advert, you can see that, and then looking at the online version as well, which you played, the comparisons to nature as these vehicles, several vehicles move through rivers and off-road terrain. It was the particularly egregious nature of the advert, I think, the sheer volume of cars, or up to a hundred cars driving through off-road environments and obviously causing damage to nature and then moving into a city, you know, the move from this kind of rugged terrain into a city landscape where we know these cars cause a lot of problems. This ad just ticked all the boxes for us to try and move to take action on it.

James Ward: Part of the reason that we wanted to target this one as well is the fact that it’s Toyota. Toyota, I mean, they’re the world’s biggest carmaker, and they’ve got this reputation as some kind of green darling, some kind of sustainable car maker, because, you know, once upon a time they made the Prius. But actually, you know, anyone who pays attention to this will know that they are one of the worst companies in the world for their action against climate, lobbying against climate policies around the world.

James Ward: Here in the UK, they’ve been a major opponent to the zero-emission vehicle mandate. Globally, their emissions are sky high. Like, Toyota’s CO2 emissions are higher than most oil and gas companies. That’s a fact that a lot of people probably don’t recognize, but it’s true. So to see this advert, which just shows so clearly the two-faced nature of what they’re saying—on the one hand, they present themselves as green and sustainable, on the other hand, this is the reality of what they’re marketing. It’s massive vehicles tearing up the natural world. This is a company that does not care and does not have a credible strategy to decarbonize, so picking up on this advert was very, very appealing. And to get that win, to get it banned, was really quite terrific.

Sarah: So what’s the process? How do you go about making something like this happen?

Veronica Wignall: From the point where you spot an advert, anyone can report that advert to the UK advertising regulator, the Advertising Standards Authority. And we’re seeing more and more people pick up on this, the idea that adverts that are harmful can be banned or removed. The process is quite long and it’s quite bureaucratic, so it’s not really—you know, it’s not like an exciting, sparkly activism campaign, but as we can see, it does have real world impacts. I’m sure we could talk about the potential limits of regulation, but yeah, like James said, this is a really big one.

Sarah: Are people in the UK aware in general that this is an avenue that’s open to them? Is this something that’s well known? Because in the United States, I think that we don’t really have this mechanism available to us in the same way, or at least not to my knowledge.

James Ward: Probably more so than in the United States, like you say. I think the UK definitely has more of a structure that enables people to raise these kind of complaints, not just in advertising, but across all areas of life. So yeah, the idea that a member of the public could lodge a complaint against, whether it’s advertising or whatever, I think is much more ingrained in the British psyche. Whether people would actually go to the effort of doing it over an advert that they’ve seen is another question, and by and large, people probably don’t. But then we do see these, you know, certain adverts will gather sometimes hundreds of complaints. So it’s definitely out there as an idea.

Veronica Wignall: People in the UK, we love to queue, we love to complain. [laughs]

Sarah: I think that that is actually a good impulse to be—to have the patience to complain. So what, you fill out a form? I mean literally, what are the steps that you go through?

Veronica Wignall: Yeah, you literally go to make a complaint. You fill in the details of the advert that you saw and when, and then you leave it to the Advertising Standards Authority to decide whether or not they’ll pursue an investigation. That’s as a member of the public, and you don’t really hear anything until maybe 12 months later when the advert might be banned. Or, as is the case with more than 90 percent of adverts complained about on environmental grounds, they just aren’t acted on at all. As an organization, so as Adfree Cities and also the campaign group we work with, Badvertising, as a campaign group representing consumer interest, you have more of a say in the process. So once you’ve submitted that initial complaint, there is a chance to submit further comments and responses to the response of the advertiser, the defense of the advertiser, which in Toyota’s case was particularly lengthy.

Sarah: Interesting. So what was their defense?

Veronica Wignall: Well, they said to the ASA, to the advertising regulator, that it should be their right to advertise large vehicles to the markets that need them, like farmers and workers who need those kind of heavy vehicles. And the ASA’s quite correct response was that the advert at no point showed any of those audiences. So that was one of the gist of their complaint. And then their other response was that Toyota, you know, prioritizes the environment and doesn’t encourage any behavior that’s not protecting the environment, which is obviously not really defensible.

Sarah: I found the language that the ASA used in their decision to be really interesting. They wrote that, “It presented and condoned the use of vehicles in a manner that disregarded their impact on nature and the environment. As a result, they had not been prepared with a sense of responsibility to society.” I just thought that was really intriguing because there’s a lot of car ads you could say this about, right?

James Ward: Yeah, A hundred percent, and increasingly so, I think. You know, trends in particularly SUV advertising, which are pushing these larger, more polluting, more dangerous vehicles to ever-wider audiences. I mean, a lot of SUV ads that I’m seeing recently, as in the last couple of months recently, specifically targeting young urban professionals, you know, an audience that’s never really been targeted with SUVs before. And I think it just shows the extent to which carmakers are capitalizing on this opportunity to sell bigger vehicles with a higher profit margin, regardless of the cost.

Sarah: And at least here in the US, I feel like these nature-based ads have become a real staple. And the underlying message in a lot of the ads is: we know that you feel trapped and confined by the pandemic or by the economy or whatever, and there’s this whole beautiful world out there, this beautiful world of nature that can be yours if you buy this vehicle. And the more that people become distanced from nature, the more they long for it. And it’s promising that this is the solution, but actually, this solution is the problem.

Veronica Wignall: It’s a very great irony that the advertising for SUVs, which are incredibly damaging to the environment and nature, use those very elements in their advertising to persuade people to follow that purchasing choice. And the use of nature in advertising is a very old tactic, and it’s because it works. When you see nature imagery, it sets off, you know, happy thoughts in your brain. It’s psychologically shown to make you feel kind of comforted. It’s a very emotive force. And marketers are exploiting those issues around, you know, lots of us not having enough access to green space or the ability to reach the countryside, to sell us something which is clogging up our cities, congesting our air and causing loss of life. And that, I think, is a really important aspect of this ruling, that the regulators noticed this use of nature.
Veronica Wignall: And whilst they’re saying adverts that show off-road driving is socially irresponsible, I guess we would say that any adverts using nature to sell people large diesel trucks, given the state of the climate crisis and our cities is socially irresponsible. And there’s a lot of work and a lot of money has gone into those advertising campaigns, and Toyota is obviously complicit in that process. But so are other people who are making those ads. There’s a lot of creative effort and creative talent goes into making these beautiful, cinematic adverts to sell diesel cars that are harming the planet. And I think that’s something that Adfree Cities is trying to bring to the advertising industry’s doorstep as well. You know, there is a responsibility here not to make adverts for car companies as polluting as Toyota, for oil companies as polluting a Shell, to refuse those briefs. And that’s something we’re working on as well.

Sarah: I wanted to talk a little bit more about what seems to me like the core mission that you have, which is to limit ads in public space, and sort of the importance of ad-free public space in our towns and cities. Why is that so vital to work on? How has that advertising environment been changing in recent years, and what are some of the challenges and dangers represented by the evolving nature of outdoor advertising in our cities?

James Ward: Yeah. First of all, what’s changed over the years is, I think, the scale. So the number of advertisements that we see in public space, but also the content. I mean, historically, there’s some great examples of, you know, adverts for businesses painted on the side of the business, and it’s got a very kind of oldy-worldly feel. Whereas nowadays, almost all the advertising that we see here in the UK is for companies like McDonald’s and KFC and Subway. You know, it’s these big fast food companies, it’s big entertainment companies, film adverts, that kind of thing. So it’s not local businesses, it’s not small economies, it’s big global corporations with the money to spend on this.

James Ward: And we’ve also seen a proliferation in the number of adverts, particularly, I think, well, in two ways. One is the shift from kind of old-fashioned paper billboards to digital billboards, which are far more pervasive, can be seen from much further away, and particularly at night. Obviously, a big LED screen is gonna really pierce through. And secondly, the totems that we see, the BT street hubs, kind of a freestanding ad screen which are being installed in lots of towns and cities across the UK, they’re about two-and-a-half meters high, about one meter across—eight feet high, maybe four feet across for the American listeners, with a kind of digital screen on both sides displaying approximately six adverts a minute. And there could be one of these every sort of 20, 30 feet along a high street.

James Ward: And so if you actually add that up, when you walk down that high street, you’re seeing an advert every 10 seconds. You’re seeing as many adverts there as you would scrolling on social media. And we recognize the problem of advertising on social media and the impact that’s having on our minds, but when it comes to public space, somehow we don’t question it, we just accept it as part of the background of our lives. So that’s part of the reason that I think it’s really important to question it in itself.

James Ward: And also, just from a more, I guess, critical perspective, public space is supposed to be public. What advertising does is it commercializes public space. It says if you’re here, if you’re in this space, you should be buying things, or you should be thinking about buying things, or you should be questioning your own identity and why you lack the things that you’re being told to buy. And I just think it’s fundamentally wrong that we should have to put up with that in space that ought to be open to everyone.

Veronica Wignall: We always say that our cities are better without billboards. And if you imagine a city with the things that we want—trees, public space, public services—rarely does that imagination stretch to more billboards. It’s a space where you can’t turn the page, you can’t turn off the TV, you can’t avoid it.

Sarah: To me, as someone who really values walking and being able to be in sort of the private world of public space, to be a person moving in my private way through public space, that seems to be very much infringed upon by this type of advertising.

James Ward: Yeah, a hundred percent. And of course, you know, there’s the physical impact of it as well. So this is something again that we see in the UK: a lot of towns are quite old here in the UK, they have small, narrow streets and narrow pavements, and suddenly there’s a four-foot wide advertising screen on one that reduces the space for pedestrians—particularly people with mobility issues. Maybe you’re in a wheelchair, maybe you’re using a walking stick or crutches, and suddenly two-thirds of the pavement has disappeared for the sake of advertising. It’s a serious issue.

Sarah: So what is your next move? I mean, getting this ad banned, it seems, sets potentially a precedent to bring other similar advertisements in front of the ASA. And then how could they say, “No, we’re gonna let this one go if we banned that other one?”

Veronica Wignall: What we’re hoping is that this ad ban sets the precedent, meaning that other advertisers will find it harder to use nature imagery to sell cars. That’s the hope. Who knows whether that will play out in the actual regulation. From our perspective, we don’t think regulating ads one by one is enough. We know how many adverts there are, and advertisers are very good at navigating loopholes and regulation to move towards the next way of advertising, and it’s a continual arms race.

Veronica Wignall: What we’re hoping for is that eventually, just like we don’t see adverts for tobacco anymore, we will not see adverts that promote the most environmentally-damaging products and services. So while we don’t see ads for tobacco, we shouldn’t see adverts for SUVs. We don’t see ads for weapons, we shouldn’t see adverts for airlines. These are obviously not exact parallels, but there’s no doubt that advertising is causing a hell of a lot more consumption of harmful products than it should be. And what we’re actually aiming for is a complete end to that type of advertising at some point.

Veronica Wignall: And this does have political momentum, especially in kind of local municipalities and councils. In the UK, we’re seeing some councils call for an end to car advertising across their public transport networks. Stockholm has just passed—the Stockholm region has just passed a ban on advertising for high-carbon products, as they say, including SUVs. So yeah, things are happening.

Sarah: In the United States, as in much of the capitalist world—as in all of the capitalist world—consumerism is the foundation of the economy, right? So that’s what we are looking to to show economic health, to show progress, to show growth, all of those things. Consumerism itself seems like an incredibly difficult thing to fight against, and yet that is what your organizations—what your grassroots network is trying to do. How do you take on this force that’s so huge? And also, you know, how do you talk to people about the idea that we might eventually live in an economy that is not driven by consumerism in this way, or is driven by a different kind of consumption that is more sustainable. I mean, these are just such big questions. How do you talk to regular folks about this?

Veronica Wignall: Yeah, our campaign is just one part of a wider need for degrowth and better messaging around the future beyond consumerism. James has a good slogan for the campaign, which is “Dismantling capitalism one billboard at a time.” [laughs] And I think perhaps that’s where we are. You know, we’re trying to show that we don’t need to be advertised products all the time, we don’t need to be defined as consumers by always being shown commercial messages in our public space. We have a right to be defined as citizens and people who have an active participation in where we live, and can look beyond purchasing things to feel value and feel rewarded and fulfillment and connection and thriving communities. And for us, billboards have no place in that. And that’s, I think, where we’re starting.

James Ward: I think it’s one of the strengths of a campaign like ours that targets advertising because, you know, if you were to question somebody’s use of a private motor vehicle, suddenly you’re into this kind of culture war territory, people get very defensive. And because some people genuinely do really need cars, right? It’s the same if talking about, you know, eating less meat or, you know, giving up fossil fuels or whatever it would be, it touched a nerve with people.

James Ward: But actually, if you take that one step removed and talk about the advertising instead, you can suddenly start to connect with people just slightly differently, because you can point out, or point to an advert that’s gross or that’s misleading or that’s just inappropriate in some way, and find common ground on that basis. And that’s just sort of—it’s just doing that little bit of work to challenge the assumptions that people make. And if, like Via said, if we could get these adverts off our streets, if people stopped seeing adverts for cars in bus stops, I mean, how crazy is that that you’re seeing a car advert in a bus stop? If we could just remove that influence, I think the impact that that would have on people’s mentality, right, this idea of car brain or, you know, motonormativity, whatever you call it, take away the advertising, take away that drip feed, that would have huge, huge, huge impact, I think. So yeah, advertising isdefinitely a really key pressure point.

Sarah: So what’s next for you all? What are some of the things that you’re excited about?

James Ward: For me, for my own work in Adfree Cities this year, I’m doing a lot on misleading electric vehicle advertising, which is a huge area also in the United States as well. I think carmakers shifting—well, shifting the goalposts, basically, using all kinds of slightly dodgy terminology and slogans to essentially trick people into buying cars that they might not want to buy or might not understand why they’re buying and all the rest of it. Yeah, a very fertile terrain for campaigning, that one.

Sarah: What about you, Veronica?

Veronica Wignall: Something that just came up really recently is a local group in Bristol who are fighting council-proposed rent hikes for allotments. So there’s a group called Allotmenteers Resist, and everyone is up in arms about the rent hikes. There’s also some other kind of weird authoritarian rules, like not having anyone who’s a non-tenant on your allotment with you. And the result of that we’re hoping might be—or our part in the campaign might be to make an artwork on our community arts billboard. So we have a disused advertising space which we put artworks that have local relevance on. And I’m really looking forward to an installation day, getting a lot of people down there and putting up an artwork by some really awesome local people about a really local campaign. That’s on my immediate future. And yeah, in the meantime, really pushing to get a tobacco-style ban on adverts that are particularly harmful to the planet. I think that’s something we’re putting a lot of time into, and seeing a real kind of snowball of interest.

Sarah: That’s terrific. Well, you certainly caught my attention with that, and I am really excited to get the word out to our listeners about it because I think that, when I was talking to a few people here in the US about this, it’s just so far beyond anything that anyone here would feel like they could do. There are obviously various interventions against advertising in public space, but the idea of an institutionalized way that you can approach these kinds of concerns, I think, is very inspiring. It’s inspiring to me, and I hope that our listeners will find it so. Also—and I’m gonna be keeping a very close eye on what Adfree Cities is doing in the future, because I think it could be a great model for people all over the world. So thank you so much for coming on The War on Cars.

Veronica Wignall: Thank you so much for having us.

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Sarah: This episode was produced by me, Sarah Goodyear, and recorded by Josh Wilcox at the Brooklyn Podcasting Studio. It was edited by Ali Lemer. Our music is by Nathaniel Goodyear. On behalf of my co-hosts Doug Gordon and Aaron Naparstek, I’m Sarah Goodyear, and this is The War on Cars.