The UK advertising watchdog has banned two Toyota adverts for condoning driving that disregards its environmental impact in a landmark ruling, stating that the SUV ads had been created without “a sense of responsibility to society”.
It is the first time the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has blocked an SUV advert on the grounds of breaching social responsibility in an environmental context.
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 cars 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.
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 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”.
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.”
Wignall 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.”
She said: “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 said, adding that the situation was similar for flights, meat and dairy.
She called for the 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.
In 2021 the regulator announced plans for a series of investigations into environmental advertising claims and practices. In a submission to the House of Lords that year, the ASA noted that it received few complaints related to social responsibility, describing it as “an area that we believe will require greater regulatory scrutiny in future”.
The ASA has previously issued a draft ruling banning adverts for a Land Rover Defender off-roader in 2021 on social responsibility grounds, before overturning it.
A Toyota spokesperson said: “Toyota does not condone behaviour 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 licences, allowing others to use its electrification technology.
“As part of its wide range of global vehicle offerings, Toyota caters for 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 spokesperson said footage in the advert had been shot on private land abroad, a non-UK location, with permission and “in a non-ecologically sensitive environment”, adding that the poster ad used computer-generated imagery and so had “no environmental impact”.
While the definition of an SUV varies, the vehicles have surged in popularity in recent years in the UK to account for almost a third of vehicles sold. In Europe, the share of SUVs in new car registrations hit a record 51% this year.
The effect of rising sales of SUVs, and the fact they tend to be heavier than the traditional models previously bought, means the average conventional-engined car bought in 2023 has higher carbon emissions than its 2013 equivalent, according to the climate campaign organisation Possible.