Don’t ban fossil fuel advertising—be better at promoting electric instead

—There are those who believe we should ban ads for fossil fuels to save the planet. Eric Blais thinks we’ll have more luck if we encourage electric vehicle sales instead—

We are days away from Clean Air Day. The federal government is asking Canadians to help clear the air, and reminds us that some air pollutants, such as car emissions, contribute to climate change. It invites us to drive an electric car or try alternative forms of transportation, such as taking the train instead of a plane.

I suspect we’ll also hear from the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment, reminding us that “fossil fuel ads make us sick.” That was the theme of a campaign it launched on Clean Air Day last year, calling for a ban on all fossil fuel advertising.

The campaign was launched with an open letter to several key federal Ministers signed by 35+ organizations representing more than 700,000 health professionals. It joins other campaigns around the world targeting fossil fuel ads, some of which have led to successful bans, including in Amsterdam and France.

CAPE’s press release last year called it a tobacco-style ban on fossil fuel advertising: “In 1988, Canada banned cigarette advertising primarily due to health concerns. Today, fossil fuels threaten the lives of as many people as smoking. To protect the health of people and the planet, we must stop promoting these products and the public must be informed about the dangers to human and environmental health they represent.”

(Full disclosure: I briefly worked on tobacco advertising in the late 80s. I’m not proud of it.)

I agree that actions are urgently required to improve air quality and reduce greenhouse gas emissions to fight climate change. But I am not convinced restricting fossil fuel advertising will have the desired impact.

There are certainly health and environmental hazards associated with both fossil fuel vehicles and tobacco use, but they are fundamentally different in several respects.

Tobacco is inherently addictive due to the nicotine it contains, which leads to physical dependency and makes it extremely difficult for users to quit. This results in a repeated and prolonged exposure to health hazards.

Fossil fuel vehicles, on the other hand, do not have this addictive factor. While people may become accustomed to the convenience of a personal vehicle, this is a behavioural habit, rather than a physical addiction. Therefore, with the right incentives, it can be easier for individuals to switch to cleaner alternatives, such as electric vehicles or public transportation.

The direct and immediate health effects of tobacco are more severe and personal. Chronic use of tobacco leads to a multitude of health problems, such as lung cancer, heart disease, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), which are well-documented and have been scientifically linked to tobacco use.

In contrast, the health effects of fossil fuel vehicles are more indirect. These vehicles contribute to air pollution, which in turn can exacerbate respiratory conditions and increase the risk of cardiovascular diseases among the general population. However, the health risk from any one vehicle is much lower than from smoking a single cigarette, given that the latter can sometimes lead to a lifelong addiction.

To be clear, I look forward to the day in 2035 when the sale of new vehicles with internal combustion engines will be prohibited in Canada. We’ll all be healthier for it.

However, I am arguing that programs aimed at accelerating the adoption of electric vehicles during the next decade will have a more concrete impact than banning ads for fuel-powered vehicles.

Automakers spend a fortune in advertising every year. Toyota, for example, reportedly spent $1.7 billion in 2022. Rather than ban advertising, why not leverage automakers’ vast financial resources to accelerate the adoption of electric vehicles?

For example, automotive advertisements for fossil fuel vehicles should include messages promoting cleaner, more sustainable transportation alternatives, such as electric vehicles. This parallels the practice seen in the alcohol industry, where ads include messages promoting responsible drinking aimed at mitigating the potential harm caused by excessive alcohol consumption.

Similarly, the automotive industry could adopt a practice of advocating for responsible vehicle use. By incorporating messages about the benefits of electric vehicles, automotive manufacturers can educate consumers about the environmental impact of their choices and stimulate demand for cleaner technologies.

Also, we could borrow from France, where it’s now the law to include one of three messages in automotive ads: “Pour les trajets courts, privilégiez la marche ou le vélo #SeDéplacerMoinsPolluer” (For short journeys, favour walking or cycling), “Pensez à covoiturer #SeDéplacerMoinsPolluer” (Think about carpooling), “Au quotidien, prenez les transports en commun #SeDéplacerMoinsPolluer” (On a daily basis, take public transport).

Back in 1896, one of the first car ads urged readers to “dispense with a horse” claiming that “the hydrocarbon motor is simple and powerful. No odour.” Ads for fossil fuel cars running today might look equally wrong in 125 years. But, over the next decade, encouraging a balanced approach to advertising fossil fuel and electric cars with a strong case for switching to electric vehicles (i.e., dispensing with fuel-derived horsepower) might do more to accelerate the adoption of EVs than a ban.

Éric Blais is president of Headspace Marketing, a consultancy that helps marketers build brands in Quebec. He can be reached at

Eric Blais