Media slam compulsory CO2 advertising for cars

Five German car manufacturers are under pressure after the European Commission said it is investigating their involvement in a potential cartel.

A Parliament proposal to encourage cuts in CO2 emissions from new vehicles by introducing “tobacco-style” environmental warnings in car advertisements has caused outrage among Europe’s media corporations, who say such measures could cause serious harm to their business.

A European Parliament report on cutting carbon dioxide emissions from cars, adopted on 24 October, calls on the Commission to introduce mandatory minimum requirements for the display of information relating to the fuel economy (l/100 km) and CO2 emissions (g/km) of new cars. 

“A minimum of 20%” of the space devoted to the promotion of new cars through advertising, marketing and promotional literature or in showroom displays should be dedicated to this type of information, and should be displayed “in a conspicuous, user-friendly and possibly colour-coded format, for the purposes of comparison”, states the report.

The Commission had itself proposed that an existing directive on fuel efficiency labeling (1999/94/EC) be amended, to create a range of “energy efficiency classes”, with indications about the car’s annual running costs, fuel consumption and possible vehicle CO2 tax levels, in order to raise consumer awareness. 

It had also invited car manufacturers to sign up to a voluntary EU-wide code of good practice on car marketing and advertising, aimed at shifting some of the focus away from vehicle performance towards more sustainable consumption patterns. 

But the EP’s report – which does not bind the Commission – says it has “no confidence in the likely effectiveness of the proposed voluntary agreement” and calls for a binding code, “which outlaws false green claims” and includes a ‘green star’ ranking system that takes into account all aspects of environmental performance, including fuel consumption and CO2 emissions, but also emissions of other pollutants, the car’s noise, space efficiency and other factors that can have an impact including weight, aerodynamics and environmental driving aids.

However, media corporations immediately rejected Parliament’s demand, saying it neglected existing legislation on media and advertising and would serve only to harm Europe’s audiovisual sector. 

Liberal MEP Chris Davies, who drafted Parliament's report, claims changes to car advertising are an important part of the package. "Car manufacturers claim they simply respond to consumer demand, but I believe they use advertising to shape consumer demand." 

"Parliament has sent a clear message to insist that advertisements give car buyers more details of the fuel economy and emissions performance of the vehicles on sale. The information should be upfront and bold, not buried away in the small print." 

But the European Publishers Council (EPC) said that the proposal was "extremely concerning" for the press, TV, radio and internet. 

"The EP has completely failed to take into account the impact on the media of such draconian proposals," said EPC Executive Director Angela Mills Wade, adding: "Advertising revenues are essential to the proper functioning of the private media – they fund T V programmes, the press, radio and internet content. It is disappointing that the MEPS have not realised that the media doesn't operate in a legal vacuum. We already have rules in place to control misleading claims as well as detailed self-regulatory guidelines on how to handle environmental issues." 

She said that the EPC would be requesting that the Commission carry out an economic impact assessment before considering turning such proposals into a draft directive, to evaluate the commercial damage that could result if carmakers shift their marketing budgets away form media advertising. 

Egta, the association of television and radio sales houses, also expressed "very strong concerns and disappointments" after Parliament's vote, saying: "Our environment and air quality deserve better solutions." Secretary General Michel Grégoire declared that, not only was Parliament's call for restrictions on car advertising "overly simplistic", but that it was also "misleading to pretend that it could have an impact on CO2 emission levels". 

Egta believes that requiring that minimum levels of advertisement space be dedicated to warnings is a "disgraceful and unworkable solution that would only serve to harm Europe's audiovisual sector". 

Indeed, if a certain amount of advertisement space is reserved for specific warnings and "minute technical information", this makes the advert less attractive, Egta explained to EURACTIV, and, with the car industry representing one of the top investors in advertising, Parliament's proposal could have a "considerable" impact on the advertising sector's revenues. 

This is the case both for television, where the automobile sector represents roughly 9% of advertising revenues across the EU (although figures differ across countries), and for radio especially, where it accounts for around 15% of all advertising revenues, and where the obligation would have to be implemented by adding long oral statements to the end of the adverts, both making them more expensive and destroying any creativity. 

The Association of Automobile Manufacturers' (ACEA) spokeswoman Sigrid de Vries told EURACTIV that carmakers were "neutral" on the issue, but stressed that it was "important not to lose sight of the main aim of the legislation, which is to reduce CO2". 

"It may sound like a good idea, but will it have any effect?", she questioned, adding that it might be best to focus on "truly effective" measures, such as working on consumer behaviour and a revision of the labelling directive, which has so far not yielded many results due to very different levels of implementation in member states. 

She said that the industry was investigating the Commission's proposal for an EU-wide code of good practice on car marketing and advertising and "taking it very seriously", but noted that it was "much easier said than done", because "advertising is very much a national issue, with different cultures and traditions, so it is not clear that there should be something at European level". 

As regards Parliament's request to devote more spaced to environmental performance, she said she did not know if this would be a burden or not. "The car industry wants to sell all of its products and is proud of all of its models. For this, advertising is a good thing, and environmental performance can also be something positive," she said. 

What's more, she added: "The environmental argument is becoming much more of a selling point and that is very important because we need to sell the products that consumers want,” she said, commenting that if this had been the case a few years ago, maybe more efficient models, such as the electric car, which "flopped despite substantial advertising campaigns", may have seen more success. 

As expected, MEPs, on 24 October, backed a report calling on the Commission to introduce stricter CO2 targets for vehicle manufacturers but with longer deadlines. 

Last February, the Commission had suggested that manufacturers should be made to reduce average car emissions from current levels of 160g/km to 130g/km by 2012 through improvements in vehicle technology. But Parliament says the goal should be changed to 125g/km by 2015, so as to allow industry "sufficient time to make the design changes at least possible cost". 

The report also calls for a major shift in the advertising of new cars, saying that one fifth of all information campaigns should be devoted to fuel consumption and CO2 emissions, with a view to changing consumer behaviour. 

For more details on the vote in Parliament, see EURACTIV 22/10/07 or our LinksDossier on Cars & CO2

  • Jan. 2008: Commission to prepare draft legislation to implement the strategy.

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