Bandwagons have a habit of careering towards advertising, and the latest one to hurtle into the industry is an unmistakable shade of green. Crammed full of politicians desperate to be seen to be taking action on climate change, it has a number of sectors in its sights, but it seems the car industry is first in its path – and it promises to be an almighty collision.
The European Parliament’s Environment Committee has just voted in favour of a report by Liberal Democrat MEP Chris Davies that calls for tobacco-style safety warnings to be introduced on car ads. That followed similar proposals by the Conservative Party’s Quality of Life policy group, set up by David Cameron to help the fight against climate change. But the plans have been slammed as “absolute nonsense” by the motoring industry, which argues that it is already heavily regulated and says that safety warnings on ads would be a “bridge too far” (MW last week).
Davies wants 20% of advertising space in car ads to be set aside to highlight carbon dioxide (CO2) emission levels. But Advertising Association director of public affairs Sue Eustace says: “This has all sorts of implications. It raises questions about what the incentive is to advertise and why car companies should advertise at all.”
That view is supported by Kia UK managing director Paul Philpott, who joined the Korean marque at the start of this year from Toyota GB, where he was commercial director. “I fear what’s going to happen if there are too many regulations,” he says. “Car companies will stop advertising and find other ways of doing things. Advertising is there to increase the desirability of your product. Sticking government health warnings on car adverts will lead us to find alternative ways of getting to our consumers.”
The Quality of Life policy group claims a recent survey found that almost six out of ten car ads in the UK press were for vehicles in the two most polluting categories, while just 3% were promoting the cleanest cars. Its report states: “An incoming Conservative government should learn from the current regulation of cigarette advertising and require a designated proportion of advertising space to be given over to fuel economy information.”
But the comparison with tobacco has infuriated the car industry. “Cigarettes are nothing like cars – they are two totally separate issues,” adds Philpott. “We do not shy away from publishing data on the emissions coming out of our cars.”
The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) held a meeting with key industry figures earlier this month to discuss the best way of dealing with calls for more stringent advertising regulation. SMMT head of communications Nigel Wonnacott acknowledges that there is more focus on car advertising now and says: “There is an acceptance that we need to be engaging with the advertising industry and regulators because we don’t want to see these ridiculous proposals introduced.”
In a report last month, the Liberal Democrats proposed the introduction of a mandatory system of colour-coded fuel efficiency labelling as part of its plans to make Britain carbon neutral by 2050. It also called for all cars to be carbon-emission-free by 2040.
Honda marketing communications manager Harry Cooklin believes the answer is to be proactive: “The industry needs to get on the front foot, rather than waiting for legislation and then fighting it.”
Car manufacturers are already required to display CO2 information on press and point of purchase ads, but some feel that a collective failure on the part of the industry to fully adhere to these guidelines has not helped its cause.
Honda has a policy of sending all ads to the Advertising Standards Authority before they break, but Cooklin says: “Some manufacturers try harder to follow the guidelines than others. To be fair to the industry, there is some confusion about what the requirements are, but some manufacturers take advantage of that confusion.”
Krow founding partner John Quarrey draws a comparison with financial services regulations and says the information needs to be more digestible. “All the terms and conditions you have to have on-screen are impenetrable,” he adds. “TV wasn’t designed to deliver so many words. I would stick to the information that is most useful to the consumer and keep it to a minimum.”
Davies’ report goes before the full European Parliament next month, but the Incorporated Society of British Advertisers (ISBA) is critical of it and says there will be strong pressure on members to vote against the “misuse” of warning signs on car ads.
ISBA director of public affairs Ian Twinn says targeting advertising is not the way to make people consider the impact their cars have on the environment: “The European Parliament is confusing that with thinking that changing advertising laws will make any difference at all.”
“Politicians are misunderstanding how advertising works. They think it is more effective and more powerful than it actually is. A lot of car advertising is about making people feel good about their favourite brand – it’s not about changing people’s perceptions from scratch. Politicians don’t always think things through, but it’s our responsibility to help them do that.”
Many experts feel that car companies will start to spend more of their marketing budgets on promoting their green credentials, regardless of whether Davies’ proposals are supported or not.
“If you’re a manufacturer and have a competitive advantage on something consumers care about, you’d be remiss not to use it in your advertising,” says Ford of Britain marketing director Mark Ovenden. “The most practical thing car companies can do is make sure they are fully competitive on CO2 – but I tend to be relaxed about the regulation side. People buy cars first and foremost for emotional reasons. They buy cars they want to be seen in, and they always have done.”
While the automotive sector looks like being the next targeted for regulation after crackdowns on tobacco, food and alcohol advertising, many believe it is only a matter of time before the green bandwagon begins bearing down on other high-polluting industries, such as aviation. Media agency Initiative’s managing director Gary Birtles thinks the latest round of proposals is a step too far.
He says: “If we start going down this road with cars, where do we draw the line? Should the same rules apply to airline advertising and everything else that contributes to our carbon footprint? It’s starting to sound a bit precious and has the makings of a nanny state.”
Politicians clearly see the environment as a vote winner, but they would be foolish to underestimate the resolve of car manufacturers and an advertising industry that is beginning to think that enough is enough.