Punishing the Gas Guzzlers Brussels Plans Crackdown on Car Advertising

The European Union bureaucracy is on a roll: After imposing restrictions on how tobacco, alcohol and food products can be advertised, it has set its sights on gas-guzzling cars. But German manufacturers and media conglomerates warn the financial impact could be devastating.


Only a select few VIPs are allowed to park on the paved lot directly next to the entrance to the enormous Berlaymont building in Brussels, the headquarters of the European Commission. The luxury sedans lined up in the parking lot include Audis, BMWs, Jaguars and Mercedes. The chauffeurs keep the engines running in the winter to stay warm, and in the summer to keep their energy-consuming air-conditioning systems going.

The contents of the Berlaymont's parking lot are especially impressive on Wednesdays, when European Commission President José Manuel Barroso and the 26 European Union commissioners gather around the conference table on the 14th floor. They often discuss climate protection, and what ought to be done to promote it.

To buck the trend, Commissioner for the Environment Stavros Dimas has chosen a Japanese hybrid known for its low emissions as his official vehicle. His position apparently makes this practically a requirement, but he's the exception rather than the rule. His fellow commissioners see no reason to revise their automotive preferences. "We commissioners travel a lot," says one of them, "and we need large, comfortable and fast cars."

Though clearly a topic that they have no serious interest in pursuing when it comes to their own luxury sedans, the commissioners are poised to tackle the issue in a way that will affect everyone else in Europe. Europe's lawmakers want to restrict and regulate automobile advertising. Their hope is that most drivers will lose interest in large cars and finally turn to more frugal models.

The Commission plans to reveal its new proposals by the end of the month and, on June 5, discuss them with industry representatives and politicians for the first time. Although the details are still deeply controversial within the Commission, the general direction is clear. The central element is a requirement to clearly highlight gas mileage and CO2 emissions in large type in every magazine or newspaper ad, on every billboard and in every television ad. Any references to sportiness and Fahrvergnügen would be frowned upon. According to an EU strategy document, the plan is about nothing less than "rebuilding society" and "changing habits in consumption and production."

French and Italian makers of small cars are likely to welcome the plan with open arms. German automakers and the advertising industry that depends on them, on the other hand, are about to go on the warpath. Such restrictions, they argue, mean they might as well cancel their advertising altogether. Publishing industry executives like Bernd Kundrun, chairman of German publishing company Gruner+Jahr, fear "dramatic consequences" for print media if automotive ads are eliminated. In a softening ad market, car ads make up about 20 percent of advertising revenues for many magazines, including SPIEGEL.

There are many good arguments for quickly and substantially reducing gasoline consumption and vehicle emissions. The world's oil wells will eventually run dry, and toxic emissions contribute to environmental and climate catastrophes. But what is so controversial is the approach the EU is taking to solving the problem. It has led many, including Volker Nickel, the German Advertising Industry Association's spokesman, to complain about "constant new regulations and more and more government control."

These misgivings don't just apply to cars. The Brussels Eurocracy, hoping to improve its image among citizens on issues of consumer and environmental protection, is assuming more and more competencies. Advertising, production and sales restrictions for toys and lighters, tobacco, alcohol and many food products are either already in place or in the works.

From breakfast cereal to Coca-Cola, everything is being classified as being either good or bad for citizens, who apparently have lost the ability to make that judgment on their own. Brussels, says advertising executive Nickel, is staging "a gigantic reeducation program for consumers and producers."

Last summer, for example, complex rules were introduced to regulate the way food producers advertise their products. A central register with officially-sanctioned phrases is even in development for language that includes health claims, such as "Builds Immunity" or "Keeps you in Good Shape." Once the register is complete, alternative expressions will no longer be allowed.

Wernhard Möschel, a law professor at the University of Tübingen in southwest Germany, is incensed over the way the EU's producers of rules and regulations treat the consumer "as a pathological idiot in need of supervision, as someone who can't tell the difference between red and white wine."

In fact, the alcohol industry is beginning to feel the heat as a result of this new regulatory zeal. So-called voluntary restrictions agreed to by the manufacturers, the advertising industry and EU market regulators are still in place.

But the text of a rigid ordinance has been drafted and is already sitting in desk drawers in Brussels. It imposes tight restrictions on the sale and advertising of beer, wine and spirits. Labels on bottles of high-proof liquor, similar to the labels on cigarettes packages, will warn consumers of the dangers of drinking, with expressions like: "Drinking harms the liver" or "Alcohol causes disease." Under the new legislation, popular advertising themes, such as vacation and party settings, would be banned. The European Parliament has already ratified the applicable decision, which the Commission will soon follow with specific bans.

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