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Bombshell decision by watchdog rules that electric cars cannot be described as ‘zero emissions’

  • Advertising Standards Authority rules that ‘zero emissions’ descriptions in EV adverts were ‘misleading’
  • Watchdog issues reprimand to both MG and BMW for claims made last August
  • Outfit also upheld complaints about ads for Ulez from Transport for London
  • Campaigner describes decision as ‘perverse’

Time 8:15 am, February 8, 2024

A bombshell decision by the UK’s advertising watchdog has ruled that car makers cannot describe electric vehicles as being ‘zero emissions’.

Both MG and BMW have received a slap on the wrist from the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) after the pair ran ads last year which suggested that their electric models do not produce emissions during the manufacturing process.

The ASA also ruled that the ads made it appear that the vehicles did not produce emissions when they’re being charged by non-renewable electricity.

The decision has infuriated green car campaigners, including former Top Gear host Quentin Willson, who described the ruling as ‘bizarre and very unhelpful’.

The ruling relates firstly to a paid-for Google ad, which was run by BMW on August 16, 2023. Included in the ad were the words: ‘Zero Emissions Cars – Download Your Brochure Today. Visit BMW’s official online website. Find the perfect BMW electric car.’

MG has also been given a ticking-off for an ad that ran on the same day and which said: ‘Find a dealer – book a test drive. Save £1,000 on your next MG HS Plug-in Hybrid, MG ZS or MG5 EV Trophy Long Range renewed with a modern design, increased range, and even more technology. Zero emissions’.

The ASA has now ruled that the claim of the cars being ‘zero emissions’ ‘misleadingly represented’ the eco impact of the cars.

The decision has been heavily criticised by Willson, who now works for FairCharge – a national campaign to make the switch to EVs accessible and affordable for all.

Writing on LinkedIn, he said: ‘The decision by the Advertising Standards Authority that electric cars can’t be described as ‘zero emission’ seems perverse and not only goes against the government’s own description but conflicts with the wording that’s been used by virtually everybody in the EV, renewables, and sustainability sectors over many years.

‘I wonder who they think this decision will benefit.

‘I think it will confuse consumers even more and play into the hands of anti-EV voices who will do their best to challenge the air quality benefits of EVs even more than they do already. I can see that the Telegraph has already run a piece.

‘Does the ASA know that there’s a large body of scientific research that shows that an EV produces three times less CO2 in its lifetime than a combustion car?

‘I’m all for honest advertising but this does seem a bizarre and very unhelpful decision. Perhaps the ASA should tell us if there’s been an official complaint about the use of ‘zero emission’ and if so, who made it?’

Ulez ads made ‘misleading’ pollution claims, watchdog rules

The decision is not the only motoring ruling made by the ASA in recent days, with Transport for London (TfL) also falling foul of the watchdog’s rules.

The body found that adverts for the expansion of London’s Ultra Low Emission Zone (Ulez) made misleading claims about pollution levels across the capital and inside cars.

The ASA said claims made by TfL, which runs Ulez, that levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) had reduced by almost half as a result of the scheme were not based on measurements of air quality taken before and after it was implemented, as listeners of the radio ad might have expected.

Instead, TfL based its claim on calculating the difference between current air quality measurements and a ‘non-Ulez scenario’, but without qualifying this for listeners and likely misleading them, the ASA found.

The ASA also upheld complaints about claims in a second TfL ad that most deaths related to air pollution ‘actually’ occurred in outer London, when this was in fact based on modelled estimates.

The ASA said the ad was likely to mislead listeners because it didn’t explain the basis of the claim.

In a separate ruling, the ASA found that a claim made in a radio ad by the Greater London Authority that ‘according to research, one of the most polluted places in London is inside your car’ was misleading.

TfL said it was ‘disappointed’ with the ASA’s ruling, adding that scientific analysis based on modelled scenarios and estimates was ‘standard practice’ in the scientific community and central government.

A spokeswoman said: ‘The ASA did not challenge the science. Its ruling centres around a minor technical point in some ads. We will take this into account when drafting the wording and referencing in any future adverts.

‘The science is absolutely clear about the significant harm of air pollution on people’s health and that estimated premature deaths from air pollution are higher in outer London than in inner London.

‘It is also clear from robust scientific assessment that the central London Ulez was key to almost halving the nitrous oxide emissions in the original Ulez area.

‘The expansion of the Ultra Low Emission Zone is playing a crucial role in the reduction of air pollution – improving air quality for everyone in London and reducing the harms to health associated with vehicle emissions.’

A spokesman for London Mayor Sadiq Khan added: ‘The ASA is not challenging the science behind the advertisement, and we are confident that it contains nothing misleading. The advert went through a robust policy and industry approval process.

‘Studies from global institutions have shown that exposure to air pollution, even at low levels, is very damaging to people’s health. We are satisfied with the science behind the claim and how we presented it.’

Jack Williams's avatar

Jack joined the Car Dealer team in 2021 as a staff writer. He previously worked as a national newspaper journalist for BNPS Press Agency. He has provided news and motoring stories for a number of national publications including The Sun, The Times and The Daily Mirror.

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