Close-Up: Live issue - EU's 'green' lobby takes aim at car ads

The EU is threatening to impose tougher rules on car ads. Kunal Dutta analyses the implications.

Advertising and automobiles, two regular whipping boys of the liberal social agenda, took a bashing in Brussels a fortnight ago. On 23 October, proposals for tobacco-style warnings to appear on car ads were agreed in a European Parliamentary vote with little opposition. As a result, the seeds of yet more advertising restrictions have tiptoed their way through the back door.

It could be as early as 2009 when (or if) the proposal is turned into binding legislation, but, under the rules, a minimum of 20 per cent of every car ad on TV, radio, digital, point of sale and direct marketing could end up carrying mandatory warnings about a car's CO2 emissions and fuel economy rates.

A TURN FOR THE WORSE

A worse-case scenario might read something like this. British creativity ends up tarnished by clunky caveats bolted on to ads, media revenues shot through as car companies adapt marketing strategies to circumvent the legislation, and UK car advertising - so often the marker for the rest of the world - forced to compete on a European playing field where environmental credentials are the focus of the message.

So how has it come to this? The proposal comes in response to the European Union's ambitions of reducing greenhouse emissions by at least 20 per cent by 2020 (against 1990 levels). The European environment spokesman and Liberal MEP, Chris Davies, put it forward as part of an own-initiative report (the European equivalent of a private member's bill).

Other suggested initiatives include car-makers capping average emissions from all passenger cars at 125g CO2/km by 2015; this figure to be reduced to 95gm CO2 by 2020, and in 2011, car manufacturers to be charged penalties for exceeding emissions limits.

But advertising is charged with making sense of this for consumers. "We want car companies to compete on the basis of their green credentials, rather than their appeal to Jeremy Clarkson," Davies told Campaign. "It's time ads gave consumers more details on the fuel economy and emissions performances of vehicles on sale. This information should not just be buried away in the small print."

There was a distinct lack of opposition when these terms of engagement went under Parliamentary review. "The Socialist Party suggest an amendment from '20 per cent' to 'a significant proportion' but that didn't carry through," Davies recalls. "And with advertising issues, you'd expect opposition from right of centre, but that didn't come to pass either."

The reasons for this are deeply equivocal. The environment is one of the most unifying and pressing issues of the 21st century, which bypasses political allegiances. With the goal of cutting emissions by 20 per cent by 2020 looking unlikely, it's no surprise that policy-makers appeared reluctant to be seen to be standing in the way of the European Parliament proposals.

STANDING YOUR GROUND

Agencies have been remarkably silent on these issues. For an industry used to fighting for a client's business, it seems helpless or apathetic when lobbying against policy that could affect its future. Yet there is a need to stand up. "It's at the preliminary stages where you have to stake out your ground," the director-general of the IPA, Hamish Pringle, says. "Talks have already moved on to what the scale of the motoring caveats should be, rather than if they should be there at all."

So has adland been caught sleeping during a crucial part of an EU advertising crackdown? Yes, if history is anything to go by. In 2005, the EU pointed its fingers at the food industry for the widening obesity problem, calling for more stringent self-regulation of its advertising or face intervention. This coincided with Kraft withdrawing its children's snacks ads from TV, radio and print, resulting in lost global media revenues.

Barely three years on and Ofcom has tightened the noose even further, with a nationwide ban on junk-food TV advertising when children are watching, with further regulations possible next year.

Tobacco ads have disappeared, and recent calls for alcohol ad restrictions are under consideration in Whitehall. "Politicians still think ad bans deliver policy objectives, and that the industry hasn't done enough to convince them otherwise, despite the academic evidence on our side," Pringle says.

Unlike tobacco or alcohol, this latest clampdown on car advertising is actually in keeping with the current climate of car advertising. More so than ever, car-makers are rushing to emphasise environmental credentials. The latest print ad for the Volkswagen BlueMotion Polo, for instance, focuses on its environmental efficiency by showing a car next to 5,000 aluminium cans. The body copy stresses its CO2 emissions and fuel economy as the main message. All of which means that, by Davies' standards, the ad would adhere to the EU proposal - in its current form, anyway.

"It doesn't necessarily have to come as an official health warning at the end. Ads that weave an environmental message into the copy would hold," Davies insists. "The industry should see it more as a creative challenge than a hindrance."

HELD TO RANSOM

But for advertisers, it is this point that renders the whole concept of European restrictions pointless. "The environmental aspects of a car are coming higher up the buying agenda," the chief executive of one agency says. "Yet still we find ourselves held to ransom by EU legislation that will infringe on car advertising's civil liberties."

Oliver Hill, an Opel board account director at Delaney Lund Knox Warren & Partners, agrees. "Certain brands are better placed than others," he says. " Toyota, Saab, Honda and Volkswagen now lead on their environmental credentials and Opel has recently asked us to pushthe Ecoflex range of low-emission models." Other brands of luxury saloons, SUVs and sports cars, he says, are likely to struggle.

These rules jar particularly since they will be imposed on a country already stringently self-regulated. "We're working very hard with the industry to ensure the UK market is seen by Europe as the centre of best practise," Nigel Wonnacott, the head of communications at the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, says. "To drive the market for low carbon cars, you need an integrated approach that sees the government, fuel companies, consumers and car-makers all working together. But the idea you can just slap a health warning on cars like you do on cigarettes is extremely unpalatable."

FINANCIAL EFFECTS

Sue Eustace, the director of public affairs at the Advertising Association, points out the financial effects of such a move. "The proposals mean brands are no longer competing on their core strengths, but the focus has shifted to green credentials," she says. "To have mandatory information in ads is not going to be productive - people only take key messages from them. It's up to us to engage in dialogue with opinion-formers to get the message across."

The IPA will host a seminar on this on 13 November. "There has to be commercial freedom of speech in our society," Pringle says. "We've had alcohol, cigarettes, foods, soft drinks, and now car advertising has come under fire.Airlines and toys could be next. Where does it end?"

Meanwhile, the European Commission will continue to debate this proposal, before drawing up draft legislation early next year.

For adland, which is rarely caught pandering to the demands of its clients, it's time it adopted a similar stance to policy.

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