A paid-for Facebook post for BMW, seen on 29 May 2017, contained a video which included the claim “Having driven petrol guzzling cars before, I realised that it is now time to switch to an electric car. With zero emissions, the i3 really is a clean car and helps to give back to the environment”, both in the voice-over and subtitled on screen.
The complainant challenged whether the claim “With zero emissions, the i3 is a clean car and helps to give back to the environment” could be substantiated and was misleading.
BMW (UK) Ltd t/a BMW said that the i3 came in one model which was a battery electric vehicle and that they offered a ‘range extender’ as an option. The range extender was the addition of a small petrol engine that, unlike hybrid vehicles, did not drive the car but maintained the state of charge on the battery that allowed the car to continuously drive on pure electric.
The ad was used as part of a campaign that promoted awareness of the BMW i3 and used unscripted testimonials from real customers. They said they would usually qualify a “zero emissions” claim with a reference to “driving”, however the qualification was not present in this ad because the claim was a testimonial that was not edited. They considered the claim “zero emissions” was presented in the wider context of the ad because the customer also said “Having driven petrol guzzling cars before” and “time to switch to an electric”, showing that the comparison was between the driving of an electric car to the driving a petrol-fuelled car, not to the driving of no car at all. Further, the statement did not imply that the production of the i3 or the generation of the electricity needed to charge the i3’s battery would cause zero emissions which was further supported by the headline of the video “Rowena’s i3 has taken her city commute in a whole new direction”. They considered that made it clear that her statements were in the context of her driving the vehicle to work. Further information on the BMW i3 was available on the website and linked from the heading of the Facebook post. They said on 29 May 2017, the website included the prominent statement “it (i.e. the BMW i3) generates zero driving emissions”, making it clear that “the zero emissions” claim referred to driving emissions only.
BMW said that the reference to the “clean car” should have been interpreted in the same manner as when consumers compare an electric car to the consumer’s previous petrol-filled cars; as electric cars were considerably cleaner than petrol fuelled cars, the claim was not misleading. They also said that because the i3 electric car had no emissions when driving, unlike comparable petrol-fuelled cars which did, they would have been able to advertise the car as “green” which they considered comparable to “clean”.
Further, they said that the statement “and helps to give back to the environment” was also not misleading, given the context of the ad and the consumer comparing the environmental footprint she would have left if she had continued with a petrol-fuelled car compared to the one she would have left when driving the i3. Therefore in the context of the whole ad, the phrase was not meant to mean that buying a car had a net positive effect on the environment compared to not buying a car. Additionally, the statement was qualified with the phrase “helps to” and did not assert that buying the product was good for nature. They considered the statement to mean that buying an electric car instead of a petrol-fuelled car was at least a contribution with a view to the environment and not that the full life cycle of a car was beneficial overall for the environment.
The ASA considered that consumers would interpret the claim “Having driven petrol guzzling cars before, I realised that it is now time to switch to an electric car. With zero emissions, the i3 really is a clean car and helps to give back to the environment” to mean that the i3 had zero emissions and was a clean energy car.
We understood that the i3 was available in an all-electric model and was also available with the option of a small petrol engine known as a ‘range extender’. We acknowledged that, unlike in traditional hybrid vehicles, the petrol engine did not power the car but instead powered the electric battery which gave it a longer drive time. We also acknowledged that it was possible to drive the range extender as purely electric without the need for the petrol engine. However, we noted that because the range extender had a petrol engine that could be used if required it had an official emissions figure. We noted that BMW stated they would normally qualify the claim “zero emissions” with the term “driving” but because the ad was an unscripted customer testimonial it had not been included. However, we considered that it was not sufficiently clear from the context of the ad that the claim was in relation to driving only. Because cars which used petrol cannot be described as “zero emissions” or as a “clean car” and it was not clear from the ad that the claim was in relation to the electric battery model only, we concluded that the claims were misleading.
Further, we considered that the claim “helps to give back to the environment” would be understood by consumers to mean that owning and driving the car had a net benefit on the environment taking into account its full life cycle. We noted that BMW considered the statement was meant as a comparison between buying an electric car and buying a petrol car rather than not buying a car at all. However, we did not consider that this was sufficiently clear in the ad and concluded that the claim was misleading.
The ad breached the CAP Code (Edition 12) rules 3.1 3.1 Marketing communications must not materially mislead or be likely to do so. (Misleading advertising), 3.7 3.7 Before distributing or submitting a marketing communication for publication, marketers must hold documentary evidence to prove claims that consumers are likely to regard as objective and that are capable of objective substantiation. The ASA may regard claims as misleading in the absence of adequate substantiation. (Substantiation) 11.1 11.1 The basis of environmental claims must be clear. Unqualified claims could mislead if they omit significant information. 11.3 11.3 Absolute claims must be supported by a high level of substantiation. Comparative claims such as "greener" or "friendlier" can be justified, for example, if the advertised product provides a total environmental benefit over that of the marketer's previous product or competitor products and the basis of the comparison is clear. and 11.4 11.4 Marketers must base environmental claims on the full life cycle of the advertised product, unless the marketing communication states otherwise, and must make clear the limits of the life cycle. If a general claim cannot be justified, a more limited claim about specific aspects of a product might be justifiable. Marketers must ensure claims that are based on only part of the advertised product's life cycle do not mislead consumers about the product's total environmental impact. (Environmental claims).
The ad must not appear again in its current form. We told BMW to ensure that in future they made clear their environmental claims related to the all-electric vehicles only and not to make environmental claims about their products unless they held sufficient substantiation.