In a landmark ruling, the UK’s Advertising Standards Authority (‘ASA’) has banned two ads for the Toyota Hilux Sports Utility Vehicle (‘SUV’) which were deemed not to have been prepared with a sense of responsibility to society by being likely to encourage environmentally irresponsible behaviour. 

Who complained?

The ads received just 1 complaint, from Adfree Cities. They’ve been behind many recent complaints to the ASA about environmental advertising, including important ones against HSBC published on 19th October last year and against Shell published on 7th June this year, which applied the principle of ‘misleading omissions’ to environmental claims. However, as their name suggests, Adfree Cities object to all forms of outdoor advertising, not just environmental advertising. They describe themselves as “a network of groups across the UK who are concerned about the impacts of corporate advertising on our health, wellbeing, environment, climate, communities and the local economy. We lobby for policy change at national and local levels, showcase alternatives, organise locally to stop new advertising sites in UK cities, and produce resources to raise awareness about the impacts of commercial advertising.”

What does the new guidance say about social responsibility and the environment?

Although the CAP and BCAP Codes have contained the social responsibility requirement for many years, the Toyota ruling reflects a more recent development. In June 2023, the ASA issued new guidance about environmental advertising, and specifically applied the social responsibility rule to environmental advertising. Following the UK’s Climate Change Committee emphasising that consumer behaviour will need to change in order for net zero targets to be met, the guidance called out several examples of issues that could be scrutinized in future. One example was “Encouraging or condoning consumers to disregard the harmful environmental impact of their actions”. This seems to be the point that has caught out Toyota.

The adjudication covers both a video published on Facebook, which you can see via the link below, as well as this poster.

The video was captioned “From Active Traction Control to Hill Start Assist, Toyota Hilux, Born to Roam”. It showed a large number of SUVs driving across a rural landscape in unison while a voiceover says, “One of nature’s true spectacles”. The vehicles are then shown driving through a built-up city area with a single vehicle reversing up driveaway. The voiceover continues “Toyota Hilux. Born to Roam.” A final shot showed the car parked in a rocky, natural environment. Text stated “WWW.TOYOTA.CO.UK BORN TO ROAM Learn more”.

The poster included the headline “BORN TO ROAM” together with an image that showed two SUVs driving on a rocky incline in the foreground, followed by a large pack of identical SUVs. 

What was Toyota’s defence?

Toyota highlighted that they had introduced several hybrid and electric vehicles across their range and granted hundreds of royalty-free licences for their hybrid technology, demonstrating their commitment and the importance they place on environmental responsibility. 

In relation to the video, Toyota explained that the footage of vehicles off-road was not the emphasis of the ad, featuring in only 11 or 12 seconds of the 30 second video. They did not feature any ecologically sensitive environment nor any habitat with wildlife. 

They emphasised that the terrains featured were those for which the SUV was designed and that in certain circumstances there was a genuine need for off-road vehicles, such as for farmers and park rangers. They said that they were entitled to demonstrate those capabilities in advertising and should not have to do so in a creatively restrictive way. 

Toyota also said the image of the SUVs as a herd was intended to be fantastical and believed no reasonable viewer would have understood the ad as encouraging UK consumers to drive irresponsibly in the UK countryside and cause environmental harm. 

In relation to the poster, Toyota said the image had been created by CGI meaning no damage had been caused to the natural environment and that the herd image would be interpreted as a fantasy. 

What did the ASA decide?

Whilst the ASA accepted that from the sheer volume of cars shown, a viewer might infer it as a herd of animals and view it as fantastical, they said both ads also depicted the cars driving realistically. 

The ASA acknowledged Toyota’s point about targeting specialised vehicle users with a legitimate need to use vehicles in rural environments. However, as those scenarios were not represented in the ad, the ASA considered the messaging was of driving regardless of purpose with no regard for the environmental impact of such driving.

Key takeaways 

  • The ruling signals that the ASA will be regulating environmental advertising more broadly, on the basis of social responsibility, considering an ad’s overall messaging even if no claims are made. 
  • Car advertisers must be able to demonstrate that there is a legitimate need or purpose for using a vehicle in an ad, particularly in an off-road scenario, for it to be deemed socially responsible. 
  • The ruling suggests that car advertisers will need to consider restricting their creative treatments to avoid censure for condoning environmentally irresponsible behaviour. 

Until now, the ASA has been more permissive than some regulators in allowing cars to be shown being driven off road. In France, for example, the ARPP will not allow car ads that show cars being driven off-road. In the UK, in decisions such as the one for Land Rover (see below) and the Suzuki Vitara, the ASA did not uphold the complaints. 

This new Toyota adjudication does not necessarily mean that those decisions would now be decided differently, particularly as they only showed a single vehicle. In addition, in the case of the Land Rover ad, for example, it was being driven off-road but on an unmade track through a wooded area, so the environment would not be damaged by the car. And who was at the wheel of that complaint? Yes, you guessed it, Adfree Cities. They may or may not have responsible for leaking to The Guardian that the ASA had reversed its decision on appeal, when in fact the ASA Council had simply declined to follow the recommendation from the Executive, as we reported here.

However, it is clear that groups like Adfree Cities have adopted a policy of challenging advertising by car companies, as well as energy companies and banks. As the ASA are increasingly adopting principles about misleading omissions and social responsibility when assessing not just green claims, but any advertising in sectors that have an environmental impact, the next challenge may be around automotive ads that promote non-essential journeys. 

And guess where they already have that rule? Mais oui, la France.