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By Ellen Ormesher | Senior Reporter

November 22, 2023 | 7 min read

Campaign group Adfree Cities tells The Drum that ads for oversized cars should be banned outright in order to curb their equally oversized harms.

The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has banned an SUV ad because it disregarded the vehicle’s impact on nature, but climate campaigners say the regulators are “asleep at the wheel” over banning the category outright.

Sales of SUVs have soared in recent years, rising from 20% of new cars in 2012 to 46% of all cars sold last year, according to the International Energy Agency.

The carbon cost of the vehicles is huge. Global SUV sales saw their combined carbon emissions total just below a billion tonnes in 2022. That’s equivalent to the combined national emissions of the UK and Germany in the same year.

As a result, the network Adfree Cities is celebrating a landmark ASA ruling against Toyota for its Hilux SUV advert, which showed scores of large pickups driving at speed through off-road terrain, including rivers, with the straplines “Born to roam” and “One of nature’s true spectacles”.

The ruling marks the first time the ASA has banned an SUV advert over its presentation of off-road driving in natural habitats, a common theme in SUV advertising.

In the campaign, which was made by ad agency The&Partnership and included a paid-for Facebook post and a poster ad for Toyota’s Hilux SUV, an accompanying video showed a wide open plain with mountains on either side and a swarm of SUVs moving across the plain, causing dust to rise.

A number of the vehicles were then shown moving across the landscape in unison before joining a tarmacked road. A voiceover said, “One of nature’s true spectacles.” The vehicles were then depicted on the road, side by side, and driving through a built-up city area with a single vehicle, then reversing up a driveway. The voiceover continued, “Toyota Hilux. Born to Roam.” A final shot showed the car parked in a rocky, natural environment.

The poster, seen below at a bus stop, stated, “Born to Roam” alongside an image showing two SUVs driving on a rocky incline in a savanna-style landscape.

A Toyota SUV ad

UK campaign groups Adfree Cities and Badvertising, who led the complaint against Toyota’s adverts, say that off-road driving in rural landscapes is a common theme of SUV advertising, giving “a false promise of rugged adventure” despite the majority of new SUV sales being registered to wealthy urban locations.

Veronica Wignall, co-director at Adfree Cities, said: “These adverts epitomize Toyota’s total disregard for nature and the climate, by featuring 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. In reality, SUVs are harming nature, polluting our air, clogging up our cities and causing tragic loss of life.”

A Toyota spokesperson shared a statement with The Drum rebutting that: “Toyota does not condone behavior that is harmful to the environment. In fact, over the course of the past three decades, not only has Toyota been one of the leaders in the automotive field in terms of carbon emissions reduction across its vehicle offering, it has shared hundreds of royalty-free licenses, allowing others to use its electrification technology.

“As part of its wide range of global vehicle offerings, Toyota caters to 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 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 Adfree Cities maintains the buck doesn’t just stop with the brand. It pointed out that the agency behind the ad, The&Partnership, has positioned itself as a sustainable shop through working with WPP to reduce its carbon emissions and implementing #ChangeTheBrief, “an action focused initiative to promote sustainable lifestyles, towards a net zero world, in all media and advertising content and communications.”

It also recently came together with four other major UK ad agencies to create the ‘Agency for Nature’ as part of an initiative to engage young people in nature.

“This ruling embarrassingly reveals the agency’s core mindset: that nature is a tool to sell diesel SUVs, not something to be cherished and protected. Yes, we need positive alternatives, but The&Partnership’s efforts in this space are meaningless while the agency continues to promote Toyota, one of the world’s most polluting companies,” Wignall told The Drum.

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The Drum approached The&Partnership, but it declined to comment.

Adfree Cities put forward that only banning SUV ads outright will prevent car makers and ad agencies from misleading the public on their environmental impact.

“This ad slipped by the ASA until Adfree Cities reported it,” Wignall noted. But added: “Broadly, SUV ads like this are sending damaging messages about our role in protecting nature, as well as pushing up sales of vehicles that are unnecessarily large and damaging to health, nature and the climate. While we hope this ruling will lead to more stringent and proactive regulation, it’s not enough: we need to end SUV ads altogether to curb their outsized harms.

“It’s clear from the creeping dominance of SUVs that the ASA has been asleep at the wheel on SUV advertising,” Wignall concluded.

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