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America's Most Toxic Car Ad

France Forces Auto Advertisers to Encourage Less Driving

5:14 PM EST on January 5, 2022

Car makers will be forced to promote walking, cycling, and transit in commercials airing in France, deepening the already stark contrast between how automobiles are marketed in Europe versus car-crazy America.

On Dec. 28, the French government ordered automakers to prominently feature one of three approved messages aimed at decreasing vehicle miles traveled in the nation: "For short journeys, prioritize walking or cycling," "Think about carpooling,” or “Use public transport every day.” Advertisers will also have to use the hashtag #SeDéplacerMoinsPolluer, which roughly translates to "Pollute less when you move."

Local outlets say automakers will face fines up to €50,000 ($56,700) if they fail to comply or if the messages don't conform to government specifications aimed at making them easy to read or hear — meaning they can't be consigned to the kind of bottom-of-the-screen messages in size-one fonts or rapid fire end-of-the-ad voiceovers common to disclaimers in America.

Translation of tweet above: "Decarbonizing transport is not just about switching to an electric motor. It also means using, when possible, public transport or cycling. An encouraging development this March for all automotive advertisements. #SeDéplacerMoinsPolluer."

The new law, which will go into effect in March, isn't France's first effort to reign in the deleterious impacts of auto advertising on the country's ambitious climate and safety initiatives.

Lawmakers have already announced a ban on commercials for vehicles that pollute more than 198 grams of CO2 per mile, which will go into effect in 2028 — a stringent standard that even a Toyota Prius hybrid, which produces about 226 g per mile, won't meet.

American car manufacturers, by contrast, are not required to even acknowledge the dangers of their product in their ads – much less promote safer and less-polluting alternatives — and often encourage the most dangerous and high-emitting driving practices without consequence. On the rare occasion that a U.S. automaker faces censure for a Federal Trade Commission violation, the fine is just $16,000.

The French decree drew a predictable backlash among automotive interests in the country, some of whom complained that it wouldn't exempt advertisements for low-carbon vehicles.

"There's a paradox: the law doesn't differentiate between the different powertrain types," Hyundai France CEO Lionel French Keogh told AFP. "That's a bit counter-productive if we consider that the government wants to increase EV sales. I think it also takes away personal responsibility, and it stigmatizes the car. ... If I'm going on a short trip that requires taking a busy road, I'm not going to walk or take my bike."

What Keogh's objection misses, of course, is that electric cars do pollute French communities, even if their lifecycle carbon emissions are substantially lower than their gas-powered counterparts. Fine particulate matter pollution and noise pollution aren't eliminated by switching a fuel tank for a battery, not to mention the far-reaching health and social impacts of auto-centric road design, which Keogh rightly points out can make even short journeys perilous for people outside motor vehicles.

French cities like Paris, though, are already doing the far more important work of holistically re-imagining their road networks to make busy streets safer, in hopes that car-free travel can realistically become the national default. Advocates are hopeful the new public messaging might help accelerate that transition.

Across the pond, some advocates expressed admiration for the new law — even as they acknowledge that adopting a similar stateside standard probably wouldn't have much of an impact on America's toxic car culture.

"Considering most auto ads promote road violence and mock all other forms of transportation, I'm not sure how much weight these messages would really hold," said Tom Flood, an advertising professional and street safety advocate. "When it comes to the almighty car, we tend to do everything but attack the root issues. ... It’s kind of like showing an ad for a Food TV-style steak grilling on the barbecue, and then cutting to a message that says, 'Try not to eat meat.'"

A better starting point, Flood suggests, might be simply barring American auto advertisers from showing motorists breaking laws or driving dangerously, as they're already forbidden to do in countries like the U.K. and Australia. Requiring government agencies to mount dedicated public health campaigns promoting sustainable transportation might be a welcome counterbalance to bad ads, too — and to the pedestrian-shaming PSAs highway safety agencies tend produce now.

Until that happens, at least America has a single local ordinance from Cambridge, Mass., which has required gas station owners to put cigarette-pack-style warning labels on pumps to remind drivers of their impact on the planet since early 2020. (Streetsblog offered some mock-ups when that story broke.)


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