Advertising nudge to avoid using cars

How would you react to a label on a bottle of beer that reads, ‘Consider consuming beverages without alcohol content’?

Or, a mutual funds ad that adds the note, ‘To avoid market-related risks, consider investing in fixed deposits’?

Sounds odd?

That’s almost what France is heading towards!

France has legally mandated that all automobile ads (both fossil fuel engines, and electric vehicles!) should include, starting March 1, 2022, one of the three messages,
‘For short trips, prefer walking or cycling’,
‘Remember to carpool’, or
‘On a daily basis, take public transport’!

Source: Twitter

Government-mandated additions in marketing and advertising are quite common.

Most countries that permit alcohol and tobacco advertising (India does not) have some rule that states that the ads should warn the audience about the dangers of using those products.

Advertising for financial products and services usually always carries lengthy disclaimers that are either printed in tiny print or read/shown very fast in TV/video advertising. Recently, Union Minister Piyush Goyal said that he was willing to change the regulations, if necessary, to ensure that disclaimers that accompany mutual funds ads are played at the same speed as the main ad, and in print, in the same font size as the main ad!

Beyond advertising, such disclaimers are also part of movies and TV shows now. I noticed recently that they have extended disclaimers, beyond scenes depicting the use of alcohol and cigarettes, to also two-wheeler riding without a helmet (in a couple of Malayalam films), and in scenes involving gender-based violence! That led me to wonder if they s/w/could be extended to any kind of violence (which is in abundance in films anyway), lying, cheating, etc.! There is no end to the number of disclaimers one can imagine if we start thinking seriously in this direction.

A big difference between other Government-mandated messages and disclaimers and disclaimers added in movies, and this French rule is that most of those are directed at the impact on an individual person vs. impact on the planet, beyond just one individual.

The French rule is also not a disclaimer in the strict sense. The messages do not downgrade the product being sold (cars) but refer to the alternatives of the advertised product that people could/should consider (and they are free to ignore the messages too)! The onus is on advertisers and brands selling cars, and they face a €50,000 fine should they fail to comply.

A country making it mandatory to add messages that have a bearing on the environment is both ground-breaking and very new. The French law is the result of several French environmental groups’ lobbying over many years. The law is part of a broader push to cut down on transport emissions in the country even as it has pledged to end the sale of gas and diesel-powered cars by 2040.

But what does it actually solve? Would these messages in car ads induce you to consider public transport, or carpool, or walk/cycle short distances? You are more likely to opt for those choices based on multiple other factors – predictable availability of public transport in your area of the town, the time available to you to make the trip, walkable (or cycle-worthy) roads that may be affected by traffic flow in your part of town, and the feasibility of carpooling based on the urgency you are in. A car advertising message is not going to change or influence your decision by any stretch of the imagination.

So, could we perhaps consider these messages as nudges? If we keep seeing these messages (the automobile industry is the 2nd largest advertiser in France, next to supermarkets!), would people assume that those (public transport, cycling, walking, carpooling) are the ‘normal’ and fossil-fuel-powered cars are ‘abnormal’? That sounds like a stretch to me.

That the law doesn’t distinguish between fossil-fuel cars and electric cars is a very stranger omission with so many countries, including France, subsidizing and promoting EVs.

Research on the effectiveness of mandatory disclaimers and messages in advertising has largely concluded that they don’t work.

Unless France has a slew of measures directed towards reducing automobile emissions and this message is just one of those many steps, this is likely to be treated as mere tokenism and ignored by the intended target audience (people/ car buyers/drivers).

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