Electrilied. How misleading hybrid advertising confuses drivers and delays the shift to zero carbon transport.

How car ads lie to you about electric vehicles

More and more people are shifting to low and zero carbon emission cars. But confusion about the different models now available – from hybrids to plug-ins to battery electric vehicles – is widespread, and carmakers’ advertising doesn’t help. 

Ads for hybrid cars – those with both a petrol or diesel engine and an electric motor – frequently mislead about the emissions savings they offer and widespread use of confusing terms like “self-charging hybrid” and “HEV” only adds to the problem. Ad regulation by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has to date failed to get a handle on these issues.

To help rebalance the scales, Adfree Cities has launched ElectriLIED, a new website to demystify electric and hybrid vehicle advertising. At its heart the message of ElectriLIED is simple: if a car has an exhaust pipe, like hybrids and plug-in hybrids do, then it still relies on fossil fuels and still pollutes. 

Alongside the new website, Adfree Cities has filed a complaint with the ASA and the markets regulator the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA). The complaint details our concerns about systemic greenwash in hybrid car advertising and calls for urgent reform. 

The problem

The terminology used in electric and hybrid advertising has always been potentially confusing given the fast pace of evolution of these technologies. And carmakers seem to be in competition to invent the strangest and most unhelpful terms they can for use in their ads. 

Perhaps the most classic example of confusing terminology is the phrase “self-charging hybrid” which has long been used in hybrid advertising. In 2019, this claim in a Toyota Lexus ad was the subject of a complaint to the ASA. Complainants argued that the claim “self-charging hybrid” is misleading, because it misrepresents the way in which the electric battery was recharged by using the petrol engine. 

The ASA disagreed, ruling that the claim “self-charging hybrid” is not misleading, and now the phrase regularly appears in hybrid ads. Worth noting is that thanks to a similar complaint the claim was banned from ads in Norway.

A collage of hybrid and electric vehicle ads from different carmakers.

The solution

We want to see the ASA introduce new measures to stop misleading hybrid car advertising, and to help people who need a car to choose the greenest option.

We recommend that the ASA:

  1. Put an immediate stop to the use of confusing and meaningless terms like “HEV” and “self-charging hybrid” without due explanation as to the vehicle’s true fuel source.
  2. Clarify that the term “zero exhaust emission vehicle” or equivalent is an acceptable way to describe an EV and makes clear the difference between hybrids and EVs. 
  3. Ensure that forward looking claims are qualified by statements making clear, for instance, a carmakers’ total emissions and/or continued investment in fossil fuel powered vehicles.

Conclusion

Transport is one of the biggest single contributors to the UK’s carbon emissions, and emissions aren’t going down nearly fast enough. A wholesale shift away from private motor vehicles is needed, but where cars are necessary they should be small battery EVs. 

Car advertising needs to do more to reflect this shift and to support people in making a greener choice about how they travel. There is huge room for improvement in the current system of car ad regulation in the UK. Our complaint would be a good first step to putting us back on the right track. 

More generally, here in the UK Adfree Cities is calling for a comprehensive fossil ad ban that would prohibit ads for the most polluting products like fossil fuel cars just as we do ads for cigarettes and tobacco. In March this year, Sheffield City Council took a bold step in implementing a similar measure in their new Advertising and Sponsorship policy. 

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