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The anti-4×4 ad that backfired

Why Greenpeace is red-faced over its short film showing a 4x4 driver being bullied and spat at by fellow workers.

Shirley Dent

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You would expect subscribers to a website called TreeHugger.com to be sympathetic to, even fully supportive of, Greenpeace, wouldn’t you? Yet recently some of the site’s contributors have expressed anger with Greenpeace over its new anti-4×4 advert. ‘What a terrible ad. Cruelty gets you nowhere’, said Nathan. Someone called Dug added: ‘That childish ad made me regret donating money to Greenpeace.’ What so upset Nathan, Dug and others about Greenpeace’s latest media intervention?

The ‘gas guzzler’ ad was launched to coincide with last month’s International Motor Show in London. It is set in an office in London’s city centre. A seemingly affable bloke enters the office building, but straight away we know that something is amiss. The receptionists sneer at him. His workmates seem reluctant to enter into friendly banter. Most strikingly, a colleague spits into his coffee (seriously – a long horrible spit, at that) and then slams the mug on his table. He sits alone at lunch, shunned by those around him, who prefer to squeeze on to already overcrowded tables rather than sit with this guy. And as he walks into the lift to leave work, we see that someone has stuck a note on his back saying ‘PRICK’.

What could he have done to deserve such treatment? As he enters the bowels of the car park, you expect some terrible horror to be revealed: perhaps he operates a secret sweatshop of children in the basement of the building, or underground meetings of the BNP. In fact, his only sin – and the reason he is treated as a pariah by his workmates – is that he drives a 4×4.

See the ad for yourself here. Have you ever seen such a petty-minded, dimwitted, teenage-angsty little film? This is bitching dressed up as a serious debate. It is also dripping, you will note, with a kind of loathing for the ‘wrong’ sort of aspirational lifestyle. A Greenpeace press release to accompany the ad says: ‘The advert satirises the aspirational images and glossy marketing used by motor manufacturers to encourage car drivers to purchase an urban 4×4. In the film, a city employee encounters disdain from his fellow employees, but only at the end of the film does the viewer learn why – he owns a city gas guzzler. The ad ends with the line “What does your car say about you…?”’ (Yet for all its anti-big-advertising prejudices, Greenpeace is not above learning a few tricks from aspirational lifestyle marketing. As the press release says: ‘Greenpeace took advice from advertising industry insiders before producing the film.’ So the ad is somewhat hypocritical, as well as childish.)

Greenpeace has been campaigning against 4x4s for years, using a combination of tacky media stunts and ‘direct action’ to demonise people who dare to drive such vehicles. Last year Greenpeace activists stormed the Range Rover assembly line in Solihull, forcing it to shut down for a day. Its volunteers also put cardboard clamps on the wheels of parked 4x4s, and stick fake tax discs on their windscreens calling for extra road tax for ‘gas-guzzling vehicles’. One car targeted by Greenpeace belonged to British actress Thandie Newton, star, ironically, of the Hollywood blockbuster film Crash. Now Newton has reportedly seen the error of her ways: she sold her BMW 4×4 and has replaced it with a hybrid car.

The ‘spit on the city boy’ ad is the latest stage in Greenpeace’s anti-4×4 campaigning. This can be seen as a new kind of ‘moralvert’: adverts that communicate a deeply moralistic message but which don’t even have the decency to label themselves ‘public information broadcasts’ or ‘party political messages’. So there are more and more adverts in public loos telling us we’re probably suffering from some STD, ads on TV warning women not to get unlicensed cabs in case they get raped, adverts about how much fruit and salt we should eat (a lot of fruit, not very much salt).

Greenpeace and others slate big advertisers for trying to manipulate consumers. Yet its and others’ moralverts are even worse. They don’t want to seduce us or make us laugh or have some fun with us; they just want to wag their fingers at our bad behaviour and our poor misguided vulnerability. They are far more morally manipulative than anything BMW or Rover could come up with.

It seems that Greenpeace is somewhat red-faced about the bad reaction to its ad – which might explain why you probably haven’t yet seen it on TV or in a cinema. For all the money spent on making the ad, there is now little mention of it on the main Greenpeace website, and on other green-leaning websites, and the video-sharing site YouTube.com, there is much vocal criticism of Greenpeace. On YouTube, one user says: ‘They hate a man for the car he drives? That shows how loving they are as fellow humans.’ Greenpeace, it seems, has been hoist with its own green petard. I should think so, too.

Shirley Dent is press coordinator for the Battle of Ideas festival due to take place in London in October 2006.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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