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Environmental campaigners have accused the UK advertising watchdog of bias for overturning a ruling that banned adverts for a mud-splattered Land Rover Defender off-roader after previously saying it encouraged “socially irresponsible” driving that could “cause damage to vulnerable habitats”.
The national newspaper ad featured a Defender in a forest with the headline “Life is so much better without restrictions”. Text accompanying the ad said the 4×4 had the “capacity to go almost anywhere and do anything. If you take one for an extended test drive … a whole new world of freedom awaits”.
The Advertising Standards Authority received 96 complaints, including from several environmental campaigning groups, that the ad was socially irresponsible for encouraging and condoning behaviour that could destroy ecologically sensitive environments, and was detrimental to the environment.
Jaguar Land Rover, the Indian-owned carmaker that builds the Defender in Slovakia, said the vehicle was depicted on an established track in a forest and was focused on increased freedom after the relaxation of Covid-19 restrictions, not irresponsible driving behaviour.
In the draft recommendation shared with complainants, the ASA, which in September said that it was going to crack down on marketing that encouraged environmentally irresponsible behaviour, ruled the ad should be banned.
“The overall impression of the ad suggested that the vehicle could be driven without any restrictions, including in ecologically sensitive and off-road environments such as forests, where in doing so it would be likely to cause damage to vulnerable habitats and vegetation,” the ASA said.
“We considered that the ad encouraged and condoned the use of a vehicle in a way that was detrimental to ecologically sensitive environments, and was therefore socially irresponsible.”
However, final sign-off on a ruling is given by the 12-member ASA council, eight of whom are deemed “independent” of the media industry. The council decides whether or not ads have broken the advertising rules.
Its final ruling, published on Wednesday, reversed the draft recommendation and cleared the ad of breaking any UK advertising rules, saying that advertisers should “take care” when depicting vehicles in ecologically sensitive environments such as forests.
It added that untarmacked roads such as the one depicted in the ad were common in many rural areas, and 4×4 vehicles could be “vital in those communities”. “We therefore considered that the vehicle depicted in the ad was not being used irresponsibly … and that the ad was not socially irresponsible,” the ASA concluded. “No further action necessary”.
Robbie Gillett, from the Adfree Cities campaign, who lodged a complaint about the ad, said: “The ASA council has made an overly narrow assessment of this Land Rover advert and failed to see it in a wider picture of a worsening climate crisis, rising urban ownership of SUVs and lethal increases in air pollution.
The watchdog said that the ASA council determined that the claims in the ad were about Covid-19 restrictions, not the environment. “The council are independent, making sure our rulings are impartial,” a spokesperson said. “They determined that consumers would understand ‘Life is so much better without restrictions’ as a slogan to refer to Covid-19 lockdown restrictions, rather than the environment. They also determined that … it was not clear that the vehicle was definitely driving off-road, illegally or irresponsibly.”
In a separate ruling, the ASA banned an in-app ad for a mobile game called Gold and Goblins that “trivialised and condoned the serious and sensitive subject of domestic violence”. The ad included a video of a woman playing a game on her mobile phone, while behind her a man picked up a chair and drew it back over his head as if to strike her with it.