Location: Brussels, November 2023
Following a recent flurry of adverts for electric vehicles (EVs) by some of the world’s largest carmakers, one could be mistaken that these companies are taking decarbonisation as a serious matter. The reality is rather different.
If only seen through the lens of these companies’ advertising, one could infer that their production line has largely shifted towards EVs to phase down ICE production as required by the new UK government mandate to end the sales of new fossil-powered vehicles by 2035. However, the reality is that car manufacturers intend to keep selling and investing in petrol and diesel and hybrid vehicles for decades to come.
There’s no denial that EVs have indeed a role to play in reducing emissions from global transport but a wholesale shift to EVs, under a business as usual scenario, is in no way sufficient to meet the required decarbonisation targets. Evidence shows that prioritising investment into active travel and low-carbon transport are proven to be more effective when it comes to addressing carbon emissions reductions, in a socially just way.
At Badvertising, we express concerns about carmakers’ latest aggressive EV marketing, which we argue is used as a smokescreen to tout their green credential,s while their business practices remain largely unchanged – or worse heavily directed towards larger vehicle production. For this reason, we argue that an outright ban on all SUV advertising needs to be introduced to bar carmakers from greenwashing and polluting our brains and minds with unsustainable consumer choices.
From brand stretching to SUV-bashing
It can be useful to view carmakers’ recent uptick in EV marketing under the lens of brand stretching, which allows a company to introduce new product lines under the umbrella of an existing brand as a way to leverage brand awareness and customer loyalty. While these companies start to introduce EVs in their production lines, their marketing and advertising strategies become largely centred on these products for consumers to associate their brand with an image of environmental responsibility.
Yet as of today, the majority of car manufacturers remain heavily skewed towards fossil-powered vehicles, while some aggressively block and delay climate legislation to phase out polluting cars or reduce pollution from transport. A 2022 analysis by Desmog shows that while over half of adverts by carmakers Peugeot, Citroen, Jeep and Fiat touted green credentials, only one in eight cars sold were low-emission or EVs.
What’s more, carmakers’ new EV ranges – as that BMW ad described below – are predominantly SUV models, largely compromising their carbon emission reduction potential. Out of the 38 new EV models currently announced for release next year, 20 are SUVs.
Indeed, these companies remain true to their core business interests by pivoting towards larger and heavier SUV vehicles which allow them to make greater profit margins. As Leo Murray from Possible notes in this latest Observer article depicting SUVs as ‘Monsters of the road’: “[t]he early SUVs provided a 25 per cent profit, compared to just 5 per cent on ordinary cars”, the reason for which Ford were able to buy Volvo and Land Rover in 1999.
As Murray argues “It’s the inexorable logic of business that you will focus your productive capacity and marketing spend on your most profitable product.”
This advert for an electric SUV by carmaker BMW perfectly captures this growing trend among carmakers to promote their electric SUV ranges over their traditional ICE vehicles. The featured electric i5model, is BMW’s latest addition to its electric and hybrid range, under the BMW i sub-brand. BMW, a company mired in company scandals, made hefty profits over its electric range, doubling sales at the start of the year, following heavy marketing and promotional campaigns.
SUV advertising is clearly working as rates of ownership grow steadily across countries. In the UK, in 2021, 52 per cent of EVs were SUVs, while globally there were 400 EV models currently available on the market, 55 per cent45544 of which were electric SUVs. However, a survey by the NGO Transport & Environment suggests a gap between the advertising and the reality of consumer demand, whereby respondents would favour smaller affordable electric vehicles over SUVs.
The issues with EV advertising
EV advertising is on the rise, together with growing public concern over the climate crisis and net zero emission targets. As discussed in our EV brief, this shift in carmarker’s advertising “uncritically assumes the continued dominance of private car use as the de facto mode of transport in society”. This position is highly problematic, given that it barely addresses transport’s climate and health impacts. As presented in the briefing paper, EV advertising currently promotes flawed assumptions and actively misleads the public on a whole host of issues, mainly over its potential to decarbonise road transport and bring carbon emissions down as well as spreading misconceptions about the idea that EVs are pollution-free.
Indeed, research shows that even under the most optimistic scenario, on their own EVs would only contribute to deliver a reduction of about 70% of carbon emissions by 2050 in comparison with a business-as-usual scenario. Furthermore, given that the majority of electric cars are SUVs, their carbon mitigation potential is even more compromised.
Besides carbon emissions, EVs release a whole load of other environmental pollutants including highly polluting particulate matter such as PM2.5 which contribute to many air-borne diseases, cancers, and premature deaths, to which minority ethnic and lower-income groups are more exposed to given their close proximity to larger and busier roads. Given that electric SUVs are heavier, they can emit up to 8 per cent more PM.5 than their petrol and diesel counterparts. Tyre pollution is another impact that is non-negligible given that it contributes to the release of toxic particles into the soil and waterways. Tyre pollution could indeed be responsible for as much as 28 per cent of microplastics into the world’s oceans.
In Belgium, some activists are now facing a court challenge over their actions against SUV advertising. Their action was motivated by the rationale that the promotion of private cars – whether electric or not – via heavy advertising campaigns isn’t part of the solution to move to a fairer and greener mobility.
Indeed, as discussed above, the electric vehicles that are being heavily marketed at consumers as of late, do not tackle the issue of road transport at its heart and only contribute to further delaying climate action on reducing transport emissions.
To move towards a just and low-carbon transport system, a tobacco-style ban on fossil-powered and electric SUV advertising is a necessary step to prevent carmakers from further delaying tough action on climate and polluting our minds with false promises of green electric vehicles.
Company background: BMW
Bayerishe Motoren Werke AG, abbreviated as BMW, is a luxury German carmaker, headquartered in Munich, Bavaria. The company was founded in 1916 as a manufacturer of aircraft engines, produced during the first and second World Wars. After the end of WWI, it started producing motorcycles engines, farm equipment, household items and railway brakes. It was not until 1923 that it produced its first motorcycle.
During WWII, BMW used about 40,000 slave labourers from Nazi Germany concentration camps to produce aircraft engines. The working conditions were appalling and many died of hunger and exhaustion On its website, the company acknowledges “this dark past of its history” and indicates that it has since participated in compensation payments. While the company was heavily bombed during the war and its West German facilities were banned from producing motor vehicles and aircraft post-war, it survived by making pots, pans and bicycles. Motorcycle production was restarted in 1948.
In 1959, the company was saved from bankruptcy by Hervert and Harald Quandt, whose father was a German industrialist, member of the Nazi party who made a fortune manufacturing weapons and batteries for the German Wehrmacht.
Today the company is a global car manufacturer with production sites in Germany, Brazil, China, Mexico, the Netherlands, South Africa, the UK and the USA. BMW also produces motorsport vehicles and is an active sport and arts sponsor.
In 2021, BMW was fined 875 million euros alongside Volkswagen for colluding with Daimler (Mercedes-Benz owner) to delay emissions-cleaning technology in the area of nitrogen oxide cleaning.