A ban on SUV ads could help create the happier cities we want

Picture this: a luxuriously spacious car drives across a pristine landscape, with no other vehicle or person in sight. Gleaming metal and wheels move effortlessly along the open road, mountains frame the background, and there is an invitation to ‘seize the day’, ‘find freedom’ or ‘experience something different’.

I’m sure you’ve passed an advert like this countless times. In our cities, car adverts like this are everywhere. They are usually looking down on us from billboards as we make our way through traffic-clogged, polluted streets, in our real world which is very different from the picture being painted in the advert.

You may have also noticed that the cars on our streets – and in the adverts – are getting bigger. A new report by the New Weather Institute and climate charity Possible shows that SUV sales are rising and that: “In 2019 alone, over 150,000 new cars were sold in the UK which are too big to fit in a standard parking space.”

The tantalising wild landscapes so common in adverts for these giant cars seem all the more deceitful when you look at the reality: that globally rising sales of SUVs are the second biggest cause of increasing CO2 emissions. Climate change and extraction are already devastating many of our natural landscape. But that truth won’t sell many cars.

Artwork by fokawolf – via Brandalism

And while these huge cars market themselves as being a safe choice for your family, they ignore the reality for everyone else, which is a more dangerous road for everyone who isn’t inside the car. The millions spent on SUV advertising mask the terrible truth that air pollution kills thousands of people in the UK every year.

A ban on the worst offending adverts

So we’re excited about the Badvertising campaign which is calling for a ban on advertising for high carbon products including SUVs, airline flights and fossil fuels. The campaign wants these ads to go the same way as tobacco advertising, now that we know how harmful SUVs are too.

Car adverts also play on our insecurities and our human desire for status and success, using macho imagery or glamorous women to present an aspirational ideal of what our lives could be like if we buy this new vehicle. We know, of course, that buying more doesn’t make us happier.

Adverts like this show how advertising manipulates us to sell us a product which – we know, deep down – has no place in a world where we care about our planet, our safety and our health.

The same can be said for junk food advertising, fast fashion advertising and many other wasteful, damaging or disposable products we see being aggressively and unavoidably marketed on giant billboards and digital advertising screens.

Rising up against advertising                        

More people around the UK are coming together as part of the Adfree Cities network to oppose large scale corporate outdoor advertising. There are many and varied concerns, and these are not just about the damage caused by the adverts to our wellbeing, or the environmental damage caused by the products they are pushing.

It is about what and who are cities are for, and whose voices are heard. Is it multinational corporations or is it the people who actually live there?

A community demonstration against digital advertising screens in Bristol

This is also about consent – that we have no option but to be exposed to consumer advertising when we walk around our cities. We can’t switch it off or shut it away like we can our smartphone or a magazine.

And it’s about justice, about who is more impacted by outdoor advertising and the damage it causes. For example one of Bristol’s lower income neighbourhoods, Lawrence Hill, also has one of the highest levels of air pollution, the highest concentration of billboards – pushing yet more new cars –  and also one of the lowest rates of car ownership.

Adfree Cities exists to create cities free from corporate outdoor advertising and to give communities a voice. When we, along with local residents, succeed in preventing a new digital advertising screen or removing an existing billboard, it’s hugely satisfying. And it gives us a glimpse of a happier, less stressed out city which is free from the pressures of advertising.

Reducing, and ultimately removing, outdoor advertising in favour of community-led alternatives for public space is a real, tangible way in which we can start to create the better, fairer world we want. Banning advertising for the worst offending products, and the lies that are used to sell them, will be a great place to start.

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