Swayed by unrealistic advertising, far too many Canadians have bought into the idea that tank-sized sport utility vehicles (SUVs) are what they need—but what if car manufacturers were required to film their ads on actual roads, in real-life conditions?
As of 2020, nearly 80% of car ads in Canadian media were selling pickups and SUVs—and it worked, writes Étienne Tremblay, editorial coordinator at the Institute for Research on Public Policy (IRPP), in a recent op-ed for Policy Options. In 2022 in Quebec, new car buyers took home three SUVs for every smaller vehicle they purchased.
Reducing this dependence on “two tonnes of private sheet metal,” begins with changing minds, Tremblay writes, citing cigarette advertising bans as a template.
“Eventually, car ads would have to be banned altogether,” he says. But for now, a slower approach of showing vehicles in their real-life driving conditions could pave the way.
Rather than portraying a stunt driver “doing doughnuts in a snowbank at the top of the Rockies with their Ford F-150,” ads would demonstrate everyday use for the majority of buyers of huge vehicles: “manoeuvring in a mall parking lot, carrying the kids to soccer, or waiting your turn to change lanes in rush-hour traffic.”
As for the realities of “sporty driving,” Tremblay says an honest depiction would show a driver attempting to “turn right in Montreal without running over a cyclist riding in the huge blind spot of a truck that the auto industry has falsely sold to us as a passenger vehicle.”
Showing these vehicles in real-life driving conditions would tell potential buyers straight up what they really are, he adds: Dangerous machines that require expensive infrastructure to build and maintain, and that occupy the majority of our public spaces.
Tremblay includes electric vehicles in his argument against hyperbolic advertising (see here for a 2022 ad for Audi’s RS e-tron GT, starring American singer-songwriter Janelle Monae).
“Of course, the sale of gasoline-powered vehicles will be banned in Canada by 2035, but the environmental and human cost of electric vehicles is far from zero,” he writes. “The electric car is there to save the auto industry and the lifestyle that goes with it, not the planet.”
Montreal-based Équiterre is currently running a petition campaign calling for better regulation of car advertising. “It’s time to change the social norm around gas-powered vehicles,” said climate policy analyst Andreanne Brazeau.