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As the 100th Brussels Motor Show opened its doors from Jan. 14 to 22, auto executives convened beneath bright lights on the trade show floor to show off sleek new vehicles. Simultaneously, outdoor sites across Europe were covered in car advertising–but many of those marketing efforts were soon hijacked.
From London to Berlin to Paris, climate activists climbed ladders beside busy roads and painted over billboards with their subversive messages. “Add climate breakdown,” said one poster picturing BMW’s logo above a car with windows ablaze. Another artist ripped up a Toyota ad to read: “Toyota’s ‘beyond zero’ means flogging gas-guzzlers for decades to come.”
The hijacked billboards called out car manufacturers for greenwashing–a practice in which marketers exaggerate climate credentials to improve their reputation and sell products. It is the latest campaign from anonymous artists collective Brandalism and an activist network including Extinction Rebellion and Subvertisers International, which have previously targeted fossil fuel companies, airlines and the ad agencies that work for them.
Their action is part of a growing international movement to ban advertising from products that harm the climate, much like tobacco marketing has been regulated. Despite a recent rise in brands promoting sustainability, Brandalism activist Tona Merriman told Adweek that the pressure on marketers is only likely to grow as activists call for radical change and hold the ad industry to account for its contribution to the climate crisis.
“As the climate crisis worsens, people are going to start pointing the finger at advertising and saying, ‘you’re part of the problem,’” Merriman said.
Car brands under fire
Lately, several auto manufacturers have been marketing electric vehicles (EVs) to mainstream audiences as they prepare for laws that will ban the sale of new diesel and petrol cars. The U.K.’s law goes into effect in 2030, while the U.S. and European Union have set a deadline of 2035.
The ad industry needs to consider itself a high carbon industry.
—Tona Merriman, Brandalism activist
But while car companies pour marketing budgets into promoting more environmentally friendly EVs, the situation sometimes looks different behind the scenes. A 2021 report from think tank InfluenceMap revealed that manufacturers including Toyota, BMW and Volkswagen were lobbying governments against tougher climate policies. Last year, Greenpeace ranked auto brands by their decarbonization efforts and found that only 0.2% of cars sold by Toyota in 2021 were EVs–in contrast, General Motors topped the rankings with EVs making up 8% of total sales.
Brandalism’s latest campaign specifically points to Toyota and BMW, accusing them of greenwashing while lobbying against climate policies and continuing to invest in selling combustion engine vehicles.
“When Toyota runs an ad campaign saying they’re ‘beyond zero,’ it’s utter bullshit,” Merriman said. “Agencies like [Toyota’s agency] The&Partnership need to take a long, hard look at themselves and their role in promoting inaccurate information for brands.”
A BMW spokesperson told Adweek that “sustainability is a fundamental part” of the company’s corporate strategy and it was committed to a goal of climate neutrality by 2050 “at the latest.”
“The BMW Group was the first German car manufacturer to join the ‘Business Ambition for 1.5°C’ and is a member of the UN Race to Zero program,” the spokesperson continued. “Currently, the company is taking concrete measures to reduce the lifecycle carbon footprint of its products by 40% by 2030 compared to 2019 levels.”
Toyota had not responded to a request for comment by the time this story went live. A representative from the U.K.’s Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) told Adweek it did not currently have any complaints or ongoing investigations into either BMW or Toyota on environmental grounds.
Car brands are only the latest to come under fire for greenwashing, following the likes of Unilever and Coca-Cola’s Innocent Drinks. To put an end to this practice, Brandalism and other activists are demanding more robust government policies that would regulate advertising of environmentally harmful products and prevent misleading green claims.
In 2021, Brandalism ran spoof ads for fossil fuel companies including Shell and BP and named the agencies that work for them. Last year, the group targeted airlines with satirical posters denouncing the aviation industry’s role in the climate crisis.
Just as many agencies have stopped working with cigarette companies since the mid-1980s, Brandalism and fellow climate activists believe ad firms must draw the same line when it comes to environmentally damaging products.
Support seems to be growing for this globally, so more marketers should take heed, Merriman said. He predicted that such campaigns holding advertisers accountable for climate damage will continue to escalate and widen out to other product categories.
He pointed to the recent example of British bank HSBC, whose ads were banned by the ASA after dozens of complaints for misleading customers over green initiatives. Following years of activism and pressure from groups like Brandalism, HSBC also said in December that it would stop investing in new oil and gas projects.
“These campaigns where we highlight a different side to companies embarrass them, because the things we say in the posters are true,” Merriman said.
Governments are starting to act on this issue, too. Last year, France became the first European country to ban ads for fossil fuels, while some local councils in the U.K. have also enacted similar laws. In the Netherlands, Haarlem became the world’s first city to ban all ads for meat products by 2024 because of the sector’s contribution to the climate crisis.
What marketers should consider
Merriman suggested several actions that advertising and marketing professionals should take to address the climate crisis and greenwashing problems.
As the climate crisis worsens, people are going to start pointing the finger at advertising and saying, ‘you’re part of the problem.’
—Tona Merriman, Brandalism activist
He began by suggesting that people working inside brands and agencies should come together and hold their leaders to account.
“I absolutely appreciate the dilemma that ad industry workers are in, but we can’t afford to sit around and wait for some dinosaur managers to change their attitudes or retire,” Merriman said. “If you get together with others, you will find solutions.”
Ad agencies should “ask more scrutinizing questions of their clients”–and marketers should be prepared to answer those, he continued. Such questions could include whether the company has a credible plan to reach net zero or what the brand’s overall impact is on the environment.
But Merriman’s last call to action will likely be the most difficult for industry leaders to swallow.
“If the ad industry wants to reduce its contribution to climate change, we actually need to see less advertising altogether,” he said, pointing to infrastructure such as large electric outdoor screens that require “a disproportionate amount of energy” amid an energy and cost of living crisis.
While Merriman recognized that there is a role for advertisers to promote more sustainable products, he argued that a bigger overhaul of the industry is needed. More marketing and advertising professionals should be thinking about a better use of their skills to help the crisis–or retrain and move to another industry altogether, he argued.
“The whole model of consumerism is becoming outdated and incompatible with the new economy we need to see in order to stop climate breakdown,” he said.
Merriman concluded: “The industry itself has to shrink. That is a hard concept for executives to grapple with, and at the moment they’re not willing to follow it.”