SUVs are seriously harming the planet, yet they continue to be marketed to a wide audience. Some will recognise similar techniques to those used by cigarette ads.

‘The problem is, how do you sell death? How do you sell a poison that kills 350,000 people per year, a thousand people a day? You do it with the great open spaces… the mountains, the open places, the lakes coming up to the shore. They do it with healthy young people… absolute exuding of youth and vitality – that’s the way they do it.’

These are the words of Fritz Gahagan, a former marketing consultant for big tobacco. 

The paradox of selling ‘death’ has since been resolved. Smoking just doesn’t make sense. Yes, some people still do it. But for their decisions they are pushed to the sidelines.

Those who still insist on smoking must stand in the cold and the rain. They endure gruesome images and packaging as vivid reminders of the consequences of their choice. 

white Honda SUV on gray floor
Man smoking. Photo by Amritanshu Sikdar on Unsplash

Selling death by carbon 

Revisiting Gahagan’s words from a 1988 documentary, I can’t help but notice the striking similarities between the big tobacco adverts of yesteryear and the car industry today. 

‘Open places, lakes coming up to the shore’ and the ‘absolute exuding of youth and vitality’. Major corporations such as Ford have been portioning as much as 85% of their ad spend on pick-ups and SUVs.

As we sleepwalk into a climate catastrophe, is this the new, slower, death we are being sold today? 

If we can ban cigarette advertising, we must now employ similar tactics on gas-guzzling 4×4 cars. This is the message of Smoking out the Climate, a recent report by a think-tank called the New Weather Institute.

Large cars, large footprints

Sport Utility Vehicles are seriously harming the planet. Since 2010, SUVs are the second-largest contributor to the increase in global CO2 emissions. 

Aviation is another major culprit, but has contributed less than half the increase of SUVs. Only the power sector, ever-growing in global demand, has had a larger surge in emissions. 

Data from the International Energy Agency shows nearly half of all cars sold in the US are now SUVs. In Europe, it’s one in every three. 

A bigger fish than electric

Elon Musk frequently makes headlines and more people drive a Tesla or another brand of electric car than ever before. You could, therefore, easily think that transport is slowly becoming more environmentally friendly. You’d be mistaken. 

Battery electric vehicles (BEVs) constituted less than 1% of all new 2019 car sales. They produce half the CO2 of a medium-size car. An SUV spews almost four times the emissions of a BEV. 

The government has a Vehicle Excise Duty to discourage high-carbon purchases. So, why isn’t it working? That is, why do sales of SUVs continue to rise? 

man standing on black 5-door hatchback across brown glacier mountains
Man standing on black 5-door hatchback across brown glacier. Photo credit: Reynier Carl, Unsplash.

Sneaky finance products for SUVs

According to the UK Energy Research Centre, over 90% of new car registrations in the UK were purchased using finance products such as Personal Contract Purchase (PCP). 


Deals like PCP have initially attractive offers. These help nudge people’s attention away from running costs. 

But they also spread the first year of Vehicle Excise Duty across monthly bills. This, in effect, nullifies the primary policy meant to deter people from buying SUVs. 

Ban ‘Badvertising’ 

In an attempt to tackle obesity, the government is banning adverts for junk food before 9pm. 

Similarly, the New Weather Institute report suggests using lessons learnt from the lengthy process of cancelling tobacco ads to help tackle the environmental emergency. 

Assessing what worked in the decades leading up to the tobacco ban, it discusses the importance of everything from campaigning with humour to clarity in the scientific message. Certainly, this was a simpler task in the pre-social media era. 

Other key factors included getting local authorities involved on a smaller scale at first. Finding a mayor or councillor who wants their city to improve and appear forward-thinking can pave the way to nationwide movements. 

Pet peeves aside

One aspect of the report that stood out is the necessity to campaign against the sin and not the sinner. 

Here, I must own up to a personal vendetta I harbour with gigantic vehicles in urban areas. 

As a teenager, I cycled to school. One rainy morning, a Volkswagen Tiguan overtook me, blind, on a bend. Another monstrosity appeared from the corner and the VW driver chose to clatter me off-road (where I highly doubt they’d ever actually taken their 4×4) over a head-on SUV collision.  

I also suffer from a life-changing bowel disease which reportedly can be triggered by pollution

But regardless of my opinions on these ego-nursing cars, environmental action is a pressing issue affecting everyone. 

gray Mazda SUV
Gray Mazda SUV. Photo credit: Kelly Sikkema, Unsplash.

The SUV market must be tamed 

I have been fighting the wrong battle. My grievance should not be with the millions of people who drive SUVs. The enemy is not the consumer. Individual smokers were, in fact, victims.  

Presently, advertising convinces people that to be a good parent, you must haul your children around towns and cities in a vehicle designed for farms and safaris. These cars have become synonymous with the successful household.

Many are far too big for the UK’s transport networks, and all leave far too large an imprint on our environment. It’s time we changed the messaging to parents.

To start, we can ask ourselves, are car marketing directors planning for the world we want future generations to inherit? 

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