BMW and MG ordered to drop EV adverts over greenwashing concerns

MG Motor has been rapped by the UK’s advertising watchdog for marketing its plug-in hybrid range as “zero emissions”, despite the fact that they will generate some tailpipe emissions when not driven on their electric motor.

BMW and MG ordered to drop EV adverts over greenwashing concerns

Pictured: The MG HS Plug-in Hybrid. Image: MG Motor Ltd.

MG was also accused of failing to communicate that while pure electric vehicles and hybrids, when driven on their electric motor, generate no tailpipe emissions, they are not zero-emission across the entire lifecycle.

The UK’s Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) this week upheld these complaints lodged against a Google advertisement first seen in August 2023.

MG is now banned from hosting the same advertising campaign again and has been urged to use the term “zero emissions” with more caution. The brand has been advised not to badge hybrid vehicles with a petrol or diesel engine using this term.

It should also, when using the term to refer to pure electric vehicles, “explicitly” clarify that this is in reference only to tailpipe emissions. Customers must not be led to believe, the ASA stated, that all electricity used to charge vehicles is carbon-free, or that no emissions were generated in the process of manufacturing the vehicle and its components.

The ASA has also this week upheld a similar complaint made against BMW. Unlike MG, BMW was advertising pure electric vehicles only.

A Google advert from the German auto giant, first seen in August 2023, called its range of electric cars “zero emissions”.

BMW told the ASA that this term was inserted into the advert due to Google’s automatic keyword feature. The firm highlighted that, when customers clicked through, there was clear information on lifecycle emissions, including a note that the zero-emissions claim related to the tailpipe emissions only.

But the ASA said the clarification was not available at first glance, thus meaning customers could be misled.

BMW assured the ASA that the claim would not be repeated in the future. It told the Authority that it had reviewed all of its generic automatic Google keywords, ceased using ‘zero emissions cars’ and enacted processes to ensure human vetting of future adverts with generic keywords before these placements are published.

What next?

The rulings set a new precedent, particularly as the ASA’s decisions contradict messaging on electric vehicles used by the UK Government and policymakers in EU.

The UK Government’s requirement for automakers to increase the proportion of their manufacturing accounted for by electric models and other vehicles with no tailpipe emissions is called the Zero-Emission Vehicle (ZEV) Mandate.

This mandate was tweaked late last year after Prime Minister Rishi Sunak moved the UK’s ban on new petrol and diesel car and van sales back to 2035 from 2030.

The EU has similarly described its 2035 ban as meaning that new light vehicles “must have zero emissions”. There is no clear mention of tailpipe emissions only in its announcement of the ban made last spring.

Automakers will doubtless argue that they are following the lead of legislators on terminology, as this is the language which customers are familiar with.

Carbon Brief has listed concerns over the lifecycle emissions of electric vehicles as one of the “most common and persistent myths” hindering uptake. Its own analysis has concluded that, over the full vehicle lifecycle, CO2 emissions from an EV are around three times lower than an average petrol car. Lifecycle emissions will decrease further as more renewables and nuclear are added to electricity grids.

The Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit’s head of transport Colin Walker called the ASA’s decisions “very strange”.

He said: “It is accepted practice that cars of all fuel types are assessed by the CO2 they emit from their exhaust pipes.

“It seems perverse that car manufacturers, in an effort to meet the targets they have been set under [the UK ZEV] mandate for the number of zero-emission vehicles that they have to sell, are being told that they can’t market those vehicles as zero emission.

“The reality is that an EV, from being built to being driven to being scrapped, produces three times less CO2 than a petrol vehicle. And that figure will increase as more renewables continue to connect to the UK’s grid. Set against this decision, one has to wonder why the ASA is happy for the likes of Toyota to greenwash their hybrid vehicles as ‘self-charging’ – as if the electricity in their batteries is magically conjured from thin air, rather than from the petrol that’s burnt in their engines.”

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie