The world appears to be at war with off-roading. Some people enjoy the activity for the scenery, the camping, and the ability to get closer to nature, while others appreciate the challenge of a tough trail or a difficult obstacle, perhaps to see what their favorite machine can do. Still, as much as it can be a wholesome pursuit, off-roading is starting to draw negative attention, with concerns around the environment increasingly raised against the practice.
The situation has come to a head in the United Kingdom, where a relatively straightforward Toyota advertisement ended up banned from the airwaves for its portrayal of off-road driving. Produced by Papaya Films UK and titled Born to Roam, the 30-second spot starts off in grassland, with a group of Toyota Hilux pickups driving over the terrain. The trucks are then shown crossing a small river, before then driving through an urban scene.
The ad shows nothing you haven’t seen before; namely, a bunch of off-road vehicles doing some relatively basic driving off the beaten path. As reported by The Financial Times, however, the Advertising Standards Authority drew great issue with the advertisement, publishing a ruling against the automaker.
The clip was cited for showing “across off-road environments and natural ecosystems, which had no regard for the environmental impact of such driving.” Furthermore, the ad was said to show the vehicles “travelled across untarmacked plains and through rivers, with dust and scree visibly disturbed.” The authority ultimately ruled that “The ads presented and condoned the use of vehicles in a manner that disregarded their impact on nature and the environment,” and that they “had not been prepared with a sense of responsibility to society.” The ad was investigated after a solitary complaint by a UK-based group called Adfree Cities, on the basis that the clip “condones behavior that was harmful to the environment.”
It’s a strange and spurious argument to say that the ad encourages reckless driving with no regard for the environment. On Toyota’s part, the automaker claimed that the vehicles were not shown driving in ecologically sensitive environments, nor in those featuring wildlife. Furthermore, the ad was intended to demonstrate the vehicle for customers like farmers, forestry workers, and park rangers, for whom such off-road driving is routine. Toyota claimed that the ad, shot on private land in Slovenia, was an appropriate way to demonstrate the off-road capabilities of the vehicle, and that it shouldn’t need to depict specialized workers or specific work scenarios when advertising in this way.
Most enthusiasts who see this ad will wonder what the problem was. Regardless, the authority didn’t see it that way, and required Toyota to pull the Born To Roam materials display, stating they were not to be shown again in their existing form.
Advertising standards boards are perhaps known for being staffed by overzealous bureaucrats on the warpath, but attacks on off-road driving are becoming more commonplace of late. David Zipper, a visiting fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School, has recently been taking automakers to task for adverts that glorify four-wheeling through the great outdoors. Zipper went as far as publicly calling out Ford’s Product Communications director, Mike Levine, for a post he shared on Twitter of his Ford Ranger crossing a stream. To some, it mattered not that Levine was using a stream crossing designated by the Forest Service and was perfectly within his rights to do so. Commenters poured in to accuse Levine of “destroying eco systems” and “trashing riverbeds” nonetheless.
Actually, David, the @Inyo_NF has designated this a 4×4 river crossing location because the trail *crosses* the river. I’m on the trail. There is zero wrong with this despite your virtue signaling. pic.twitter.com/WTeDQTkt2y
— Mike Now at Threads Levine (@mrlevine) August 27, 2023
These trends are beginning to show up in public policy, too. In October, the United States Bureau of Land Management announced it would close a full 317 miles of trails in Moab, Utah. In an area that has traditionally been known as a sort of off-roading paradise, it’s a significant reversal of fortune. Moab plays host to events like the Easter Jeep Safari, with off-roaders coming from far and wide to sample what the area has to offer. Prior to the closures, Moab had a full 1,057 miles of off-road trails, but activist groups in recent times have railed against the impact on the local environment. Popular routes along Labyrinth Canyon and the Gemini Bridges were closed by the BLM, drawing despair from members of the off-road community. Notably, some are intending to fight back, with off-road advocate group Blue Ribbon Coalition stating it will challenge the plan in court.
It’s true that off-roading must be carefully managed on public lands in order to minimize any potential negative impacts on wildlife and the environment. It’s no good letting trucks roar through important breeding grounds for endangered animals, or in delicate areas where erosion could quickly see natural wonders destroyed. At the same time, government authorities and the off-road community have long maintained positive relationships to allow access in ways that allow the harmonious enjoyment of the land.
[Ed Note: Environmentalists have been speaking out against off-roading for a while, but things seem to be accelerating, with the closure of Moab’s off-road trails and a number of folks speaking out against things like river crossings. I attended a Subaru Crosstrek Wilderness event, and the company said something to the effect of: Subaru is all about being one with nature, whereas hard-core off-roaders like the Wrangler are more conquering nature. That’s not an exact quote, but the rep basically was trying to communicate that general premise. The point here is that, especially as more and more off-road vehicles hit the road, there appears to be opposition growing. -DT].
The reality is that we live in a time where the broader destruction of the environment is a hot-button topic for many, and for good reason, but this can mean that even a simple car advert shot on private land can inspire enmity and condemnation, something automakers are particularly keen to avoid. It’s unclear how these attacks can be put to bed.
The other reality is that much of the off-road community is an upstanding and self-policing group. Few will tolerate bad actors who misuse and abuse the trails and camping areas, after all, though there are exceptions.
Regardless, it’s clear public perception of off-roading isn’t the most positive right now. That will have to change if off-roaders are going to continue to enjoy the great outdoors from behind the wheel. It’s likely going to take a serious public relations effort to shift those perceptions over time.
Image credit: YouTube screenshot via PlatigeImage