ASA bans adverts containing misleading environmental claims

The Advertising Standards Authority have released a batch of decisions over the last week against a number of companies for their use of misleading environmental claims in advertisements.  

16 February 2024

Electronic vehicle charging

Including the words "zero emissions" in advertisements for electric vehicles (EVs) is misleading according to the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA). In a batch of decisions published last week, the ASA ruled against BMW, MG, and Transport for London (TfL) for adverts containing misleading environmental claims.

As the UK's advertising regulator, the ASA reviews complaints against advertisements to ensure compliance with rules and guidance set by the Committee of Advertising Practice. In August last year, BMW and MG released advertisements containing the terms "zero emissions cars" and "zero emissions" respectively to describe their fleets of EVs. 

The ASA held that these descriptions are not entirely accurate as carbon emissions are generated in the manufacturing process and when EVs are recharged using electricity from the National Grid. EVs are only emission free while being driven. TfL also released numerous advertisements between January and June 2023 that the ASA have found to contain misleading claims about the levels of nitrogen dioxide and air pollution in London.

Interestingly, both adverts by BMW and MG were Google Ads, which are paid advertisements posted on Google-owned and affiliated platforms. BMW apparently bid for the term "zero emissions cars" to target Google users searching for EV battery models. Google automation went further, claims BMW, and included these words in their advert without BMW's knowledge.

The decisions by the ASA indicate its readiness to dig into the details of advertisements that make environmental claims. Environmental buzzwords, such as "sustainable" or "eco-friendly" should be used carefully and only if there is suitable evidence to support such claims. Businesses should also consider telling marketing teams to “lift the bonnet” when engaging with third parties, such as Google Ads, to ensure a greater level of understanding and control of exactly how the advertising will appear (including any automatic data flows filtering through in the background). 

Perhaps environmental claims in advertising are becoming as sensitive as health claims. Perhaps that is a good thing.