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Activists target car companies in international ad-hacking campaign

A billboard shows a BMW with flames reflected in the windows.

One of the billboards put up in St Werburghs with a design by Merny Wernz. Image: James Ward.

Bristolians joined international activists over the weekend to hack billboards with artworks parodying car adverts.

Adverts on billboards in Easton, St. Werburgh’s and Eastgate were replaced with spoof ads for Toyota and BMW. Activists are calling on Bristol City Council to do more to tackle air pollution and act on the climate crisis.

The international action was coordinated by the clandestine Brandalism network, Subvertisers International and Extinction Rebellion and saw actions take place in across the UK, Belgium, France, and Germany. In total, over 400 commercial advertising billboards and bus stops were hijacked.

One local resident who took part in the billboard installations said: ‘This action points out the irony of advertising cars in cities with way too many cars. Despite having congested roads and some of the worst air pollution in the country, adverts in Bristol are still promoting cars that run on petrol and diesel. If the council seriously wants to act to tackle air pollution, and reduce emissions that harm the climate, why don’t they follow other councils and ban this type of ad?’

The action highlights the misleading adverts and aggressive lobbying tactics used by Toyota and BMW. In 2022, Toyota was ranked the 10th worst company in the world by InfluenceMap for their anti-climate lobbying, the worst ranking for any car manufacturer, followed by BMW who ranked 16th overall.

Eleven artists, including Bristol artist Merny Wernz, collaborated on the project, which also draws attention to the fact that advertising continues to sell more cars despite the accelerating impacts of climate breakdown. UK automotive advertising in 2022 is estimated to have generated 69 million tonnes of CO2.

The activists want to see Bristol City Council introduce a ban on advertising for high-carbon products like cars and SUVs on council-owned advertising sites.

Councils across the UK, including Cambridgeshire, Norwich and North Somerset have introduced restrictions on advertising for environmentally-damaging products, such as fossil fuel companies, flights and SUV cars. Bristol City Council has banned advertising for unhealthy food, alcohol and gambling across advertising sites it controls, to protect public health.

Kit Speedwell, a spokesperson from Brandalism, said: ‘By hacking advertising billboards we’re using companies’ own tools against them to highlight the information they’ve conveniently airbrushed out of their adverts: that car companies are profiting off air pollution and climate-wrecking carbon emissions. Toyota and BMW have been aggressively lobbying to water down governments’ climate policy while deceivingly advertising themselves as “green”. But now the truth is on billboards across Europe for all to see.’

Bristol City Council said it planned to tackle air pollution by investing £424m in low carbon energy projects instead.

A billboard in Easton targets Toyota. Image: James Ward.
An artwork is installed in St Werburgh’s. Image: Silverbirch.
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