By The Malketeer

The United Kingdom’s advertising watchdog, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), announced that it had banned an advertisement for the Toyota 4×4 Hilux sports utility vehicle (SUV) because it promoted “irresponsible behaviour” towards the environment.

The regulator barred two ads, first released in a 2020 campaign: a poster and a video shown on social media, where dozens of Toyota Hilux SUVs drive across off-road terrain, including a river, while a voiceover describes the scene as “one of nature’s true spectacles”.

The vehicles then join a road and drive through an urban area, before a lone car enters a driveway, with the voiceover continuing: “Toyota Hilux. Born to Roam.” The poster shows two SUVs in the foreground, followed by a swarm of others traversing a rocky terrain over a cloud of dust.

A complaint was made to the ASA that the “Born to Roam” advertisement “condoned behaviour that was harmful to the environment”.

The complaint was lodged by Adfree Cities, a network of groups trying to get advertising out of public spaces. They argued, in partnership with the UK campaign group Badvertising, that the adverts condoned environmentally harmful behaviour, and are calling for an end to advertising of high-carbon products and services.

The ASA upheld the complaint, despite Toyota’s insistence that it was “committed to environmental change” and explaining its roll-out of hybrid and electric vehicles.

The ASA ruled that the adverts “condoned the use of vehicles in a manner that disregarded their impact on nature and the environment … they had not been prepared with a sense of responsibility to society”.

The ASA instructed Toyota “to ensure their future marketing communications contained nothing that was likely to encourage irresponsible behaviour towards the environment”.

Veronica Wignall, a co-director at Adfree Cities, said: “These adverts epitomise Toyota’s total disregard for nature and the climate, by featuring enormous, highly polluting vehicles driving at speed through rivers and wild grasslands.”

She said there was a disconnect between the way SUVs were advertised – with campaigns often depicting them in rugged environments – and the reality of where they were largely driven. 

Research has shown that three-quarters of new SUVs in the UK are registered to people in urban areas. “It’s a cynical use of nature to promote something incredibly nature-damaging.”

“This ruling is a good moment to think about the limitations of what the regulator can do,” noting that the body relied on civil society to monitor ads for potential harm.

“The ASA can only act on adverts that are environmentally damaging through breaches of advertising codes … But the harms caused by high-carbon advertising go much deeper than that.

“Advertising for SUVs is pushing up demand for massive gas-guzzling, highly polluting cars in urban environments, just when we want streets that are safer and cleaner and an [accessible] low carbon transport system,” Wignall added.

She called for the British government to “stop high-carbon advertising at source” with a tobacco-style ban. “Similarly, climate breakdown is increasingly damaging health in the UK, as well as obviously across the world where impacts are felt more severely.”

Toyota defended the Hilux campaign by arguing that the vehicle was designed for the toughest environments, with those working in industries including farming and forestry having a genuine need for off-road vehicles. It did not depict any such workers in the commercial, but it said it should not have to.

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The APPIES is an annual event that presents a rare opportunity for creative, media, digital and marketing agencies or brands to present their best campaigns to the industry.

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