How advertisers got people shopping in two-tonne trucks

New study shows three quarters of ‘off road’ SUVs sold in towns and cities and calls on ad agencies to drop polluters

We are far less in control of the things that we buy, such as cars, than we think. In a new study, Mindgames on wheels we show how marketing created the demand for oversized, polluting SUVs and call on advertisers to “Drop the Brief” from major polluters. It shows how, when we make choices they have already been heavily edited, you could say ‘manipulated’, beforehand in ways which our conscious brains are oblivious to, and shocked to discover.

No mysterious coincidence governs the dramatic rise in the share of new car sales of large, polluting SUVs – up from one in ten just over a decade ago to more than 40% today. Just as striking is how a completely new, different market has been created for cars that were originally designed for ‘off-road’ country use. The difference is clever and persistent marketing which Mindgames on Wheels argues should now urgently be regulated.

Advertising has somehow persuaded urban families that they need the equivalent of a two-tonne truck to go shopping, and that is a problem. Our analysis of the latest available UK data on new vehicle registrations reveals remarkable patterns and a bold truth to one particular piece of urban folklore.

Chelsea really is the home of the ‘Chelsea tractor’

When SUVs first began appearing on the UK’s roads they were dubbed ‘Chelsea tractors’ due to their association with that particularly wealthy area of London. And not without reason, Chelsea, it turns out (more specifically the London Borough of Kensington and Chelsea) really is the home of the big SUV, topping the national league with over one in three new private car sales there being a large SUV. The next three highest areas for sales are also wealthy urban, London boroughs. The first two like Chelsea are also far from rural fields being inner London boroughs – Hammersmith & Fulham, and Westminster. The next is Richmond upon Thames.

Not only is Chelsea home to the biggest SUVs, but also the most polluting. One in five of new cars bought there is from the list of the most polluting, measured by UK sales volume (these are the most popular cars drawn from the 10% of models that are most polluting, and which are responsible for the recent rise in average emissions from new cars). Our research shows that a full three quarters of all SUVs sold in the UK to private citizens in 2019-2020 were actually registered to urban addresses.

What strings have advertised pulled in people to bring about such a perverse shift in the face of the double air pollution and climate crises? Decades of work and countless billions – an estimated $9 billion alone between 1990 – 2001 before the market took off – have gone into carefully and deliberately cultivating consumer demand for vehicles that are bigger and more powerful than their typical buyers could ever need in practice. Consumers’ susceptibility to four key messages and associations, repeated, mantra-like by advertisers, have been exploited.  Variously they manipulate and co-opt our fears, instincts and even better natures. These are: i. get back to nature, ii. dominate the road, iii. help the environment and, iv. protect your family.

Although effective, with one exception, they’re highly misleading.  Evidence suggests that SUV occupants are no safer, SUVs are much worse for the environment than smaller vehicles, and that the SUV marketers’ promise of escape to the wilderness tends to remain stuck in congested town and city traffic or in an urban parking space.  The exception, though, of ‘dominating the road’, is a problem for everyone not riding around in an over-sized SUV.  Their rise has made other road users less safe.

The constant association of SUVs with wild, unbound nature, is perhaps the most cynical and paradoxical of the messages and also one which often suffers from an irony-bypass.

Land Rover’s advert for its ‘Defender’ is a good example. Pictured driving through deep water with the caption ‘now streaming’, there is no acknowledgment that cars whose emissions are up to three times above the EU target for average vehicles, might actually be implicated in the extreme weather events  that cause flooding. The strapline on the advert ‘above and beyond’ is also used without irony given by how much the car exceeds pollution targets. Other adverts for Land Rover’s Discovery model, set in solitary nature insist that ‘adventure is in our DNA’.

Ford went to enormous lengths in the 1990s to promote the idea that their new Explorer SUV made families or people who drove them ‘bold, adventurous and carefree’.

In October 1999, Ford launched their ‘No Boundaries’ campaign, linking the car with rugged outdoor individualists, who were shown hiking, kayaking or rock-climbing, with an Explorer parked nearby. This prefigured Land Rover’s ‘access all areas’ campaign showing its vehicles trampling over an assortment of rugged, natural landscapes.

During the Ford campaign, their dealerships were encouraged to exhibit camping equipment alongside the cars. One store installed some trees and a river running through them. Then there was the Ford travelling show called the ‘No Boundaries Experience’, where children could test-drive mini SUVs. From May 2002, Ford sponsored a string of outdoor festivals and they also co-produced a ‘No Boundaries’ TV show which saw contestants hiking up into the Arctic Circle – which in 2020, partly as a consequence of the transport emissions driving climate breakdown, saw record high temperatures.

Allowing for the fact that that the majority of SUVs are, regardless, sold to people in towns and cities, even when these vehicles are being used to access wild countryside there is a paradox. The promise of driving into solitary nature has an element of pyramid selling; if all the SUV owners do it, the wide open spaces become a cluttered parking lot. As we reported previously, in 2019 over 150,000 new cars were sold in the UK that are too large to fit in a standard parking space.

In fact, rather than being an invitation ‘to’ nature, the SUV closer resembles a war ‘on’ nature, especially if you include us, humans, in the definition. For one thing, as larger, heavy vehicles, SUVs are significantly more lethal in road accidents, which exert a huge toll on life: with approximately 1.3 million people killed and anywhere between 20 and 50 million injured.  That, of course, gives just the death and injury figures from direct impact. But transport is one of the major contributors to the air pollution from the burning of fossil fuels. The latest research indicates this to be responsible for a further 8.7 million human deaths. No comprehensive data is available for the impact on nature and wildlife but it is lethal for them too, with some, such as birds, potentially worse affected.

As sources of air pollution, cars are a particular problem because of their close proximity to people. They are there at almost every turn in the towns and cities where we live. And the advertising-pushed shift to SUVs makes the problem worse, as these energy hungry vehicles emit around a quarter more carbon dioxide than a medium-sized car.  Increased sales of SUVs were the second largest contributor to the increase in global CO2 emissions between 2010 and 2018.

Currently, there’s little sign of this pattern of carnage going into reverse. For every one fully electric vehicle sold in the UK in the last four years, 37 SUVs were sold. In 2018, car maker Ford reportedly spent 66 per cent of its advertising budget promoting SUVs and light trucks in the USA – up from 42 per cent in 2016. And, the Australian media reported in 2017 that – as SUV sales overtook passenger cars – the advertising spend on SUVs by manufacturers had risen by 86 percent in a single year. 

Call to ‘Drop the Brief’ from polluters

What can be done? For one thing, the psychological manipulations – the ‘mindgames on wheels’ – of the advertising industry need calling to account. As the product designer, Victor Papanek, famously put in in 1971, in his Design for the Real World, ‘Advertising design, in persuading people to buy things they don`t need, with money they don`t have, in order to impress others who don`t care, is probably the phoniest field in existence today.’

Car marketing departments and ad agencies make extensive use of psychology and psychologists to sell cars. Keith Bradshaw, author of the 2003 critique of SUVs, High and Mighty, gained rare access to the industry’s carefully guarded, long-standing and extensive psychological research used to design and market the vehicles. What it shows isn’t pretty, such as how SUVs were designed to exploit, ‘Americans’ deepest fears of violence and crime’.

In the UK, the British Psychological Society (BPS) has a clear ethical code, including the following section on ‘responsibility’: “3.3 … Psychologists value their responsibilities to persons and peoples, to the general public, and to the profession and science of Psychology, including the avoidance of harm and the prevention of misuse or abuse of their contribution to society.”

It seems that anyone with training in psychology who found themselves, one way or another, helping to sell SUVs would struggle not to breach this code.

As an immediate, practical step the Badvertising alliance is calling for an end to adverts for the dirtiest third of the UK car market in terms of carbon emissions or cars with an overall length exceeding 4.8m, too big to fit a standard UK parking space (that’s longer than your average crocodile). Advertising codes urgently need updating for a world gripped by an air pollution and climate emergency, and regulators should begin the process now. But people within advertising don’t need to wait for officialdom. Creatives in the industry can begin taking a stand now and ‘reject the brief’ if it comes from major polluters.

The creation by advertising of a market for SUVs exposes the old lie that businesses with a damaging product to push  – whether it’s junk food or something fossil fuel dependent – are merely responding to consumer demand. When SUVs went in a single decade from ten to over 40 percent of new sales, car buyers weren’t like a flock of birds, each individually and independently deciding to fly South for winter, they were being herded by the mindgames of marketing. Just as tobacco advertising was successfully ended, it’s time to stop promoting polluting SUV’s.

Mindgames on wheels: How advertising sold false promises of safety and superiority with SUVs  is published by the New Weather Institute and climate charity Possible  for the Badvertising campaign which aims to stop adverts fuelling the climate emergency, with support from the KR Foundation.

(A version of this article first appeared on The Ecologist site)

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