Oops we broke EU rules

How the government has had to change its guidance for car manufacturers after it was caught flouting

My favourite word today is ‘emblazoned’. That’s what adverts for cars will have to be from now on - emblazoned with details of fuel consumption and CO2 emissions, thanks to a sudden change in advertising rules by the government.

The 4x4 campaign has been working on this for about a year now, but the endgame was surprisingly easy, with the Department for Transport changing its guidelines for advertising within three months of asking. They haven’t come over all green, or even responded to the high cost of petrol, but were correcting a legal error they made more than seven years ago in exempting the majority of ads from an EU law.

One of the aims of the 4x4 campaign has always been to get advertising rules changed, since we were fed up seeing our efforts to change the image of 4x4s counteracted by shiny ads on billboards and in magazines that contained nothing to show their climate impact – or the colossal amounts they cost to run. Complaining to the Advertising Standards Agency about specific ads got us nowhere - we always got the answer that the ads followed the government’s guidelines to manufacturers, and therefore were ‘compliant with the law’.

Inspecting these guidelines in more detail, we spotted the problem. A 1999 EU Directive says fuel economy and CO2 emissions information must be provided in all promotional literature for cars, and that this should be displayed as prominently as the main selling information. However, the Department for Transport’s guidelines for car advertisers (published by the Vehicle Certification Agency in 2001), wrongly stated that 'primarily graphical' adverts do not need to include CO2 information and specifically excluded billboards from their rules. Manufacturers, of course, then gleefully exploited this loophole to leave fuel economy and CO2 out of as many adverts as they could, including billboards and most ads in glossy magazines as well.

Working with the Friends of the Earth legal team, we concluded that the DfT’s guidelines represented a significant breach of European law and wrote to them in March this year to point this out. We also threatened to take it to the High Court if they didn’t bring the guidelines up to scratch, which probably helped.

After a quick review by the Department, we got confirmation yesterday that they are revising their guidance notes from today to make prominent CO2 information compulsory on all billboards and posters advertising cars in the UK.

The letter said: "We have concluded that our guidance is incorrect in respect of primarily graphical material. For this reason we will be amending this section of the Guidance Note on the VCA website by close on 20th June to read as follows;

“The Regulations define 'promotional literature' as 'all printed matter used in the marketing, advertising and promotion of a new passenger car...'. We are of the view that this definition does include material which is largely graphical, with limited textual content (perhaps containing only the model name and an advertising slogan). We therefore consider that street advertisements are subject to the requirements of the regulations.”

So that’s it. Job done with remarkably little fuss, showing what a small group can achieve when the law is on our side. Thanks to a simple letter, from now on, people choosing a car will be able to get vital information on CO2 emissions and fuel economy much more easily, and will be able to make greener and cheaper choices of car.

This, in turn, will help encourage car-makers to build more efficient vehicles, something they have been very slow to do. Despite having a Europe-wide target of reaching average emissions of 120 grams per kilometer of CO2 by 2012, most companies are way off achieving this. With information on fuel costs at their fingertips, people power and simple consumer choice should now be able to drive manufacturers in the right direction at last.

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