Is Prius as Eco-Friendly as Ad Claims? We Have Our Suspicions

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Sound journalism requires disclosure of potential conflicts of interest. OK, AdReview is biased against the Toyota Prius.

Why? Because it broke up Larry David's marriage. That's why. The guy's got $200 million, and he's tooling around in a Norelco Cordless on wheels? Because his eco-centric ex-wife, Laurie, didn't want him spewing anything but his hilarious and profitable righteous rage?

But she left him anyway. Maybe because of his carbon footprint.

Of course, we don't really know what prompted the split; maybe Larry is as unbearable as his character. But we have our suspicions. And we have our suspicions, too, about Toyota.

A new spot, part of a corporate campaign from Dentsu America, New York, once again equates the gas-electric hybrid Prius with all that is green, natural, sustainable, responsible and born from the Earth. The spot, set on a rugged, scrubby flatland in the foothills of the Rockies, is shot in a herky-jerky, stylized, fast motion. It shows three rough-hewn campers building what looks to be a domed hut out of available organic materials: tree branches, grasses, mud, etc. Eventually, though, it becomes clear that they're not building shelter; they're building transportation. It's a Prius.

"Can a car company grow in harmony with the environment?" the voice-over poses. "Why not? At Toyota, we're not only working toward cars with zero emissions. We're also striving for zero waste in everything else we do."

At this point, we see the free-range Prius slowly disintegrating, its natural materials blending harmlessly into God's green Earth. Then the voice-over returns:

"Because the best way to have an impact on the environment is to have as little impact as possible."

Well, gee, that's true. And we do suppose Toyota is striving to have dissolving subcompacts, never cluttering landfills with plastic panels and tons of zinc and bald tires -- approximately in the way AdReview is constantly striving to be patient with spouses and cable companies. But striving isn't accomplishing, and it strikes us as a bit disingenuous to be selling some unattainable vision of the future when the present includes such eco-whores as the Toyota Land Cruiser, which is to sustainability what a Czech brothel visit is to chastity.

There is also some question as to exactly how "green" a Prius is. At least one "dust to dust" analysis of energy consumption in its entire life cycle -- a cycle that includes the mining and transport of the battery zinc -- suggests the Prius may actually leave a bigger carbon footprint than (are you ready?) a Hummer.

OK, we're suspicious of that, too. But we don't doubt that, for the moment, pending Toyota's dream of making cars out of worm castings and tumbleweed, its environmental impact is in the same ballpark.

We surely can't blame Toyota and Dentsu for exploiting the enormous symbolic value and green equity of the Prius. But they should take care not to get caught overreaching. No, check that; they are overreaching, and they are caught. They should take care that they don't get whipped by the backlash. Because if the Prius mythology comes to stand not for environmental consciousness but for facile corporate PR, the campaign's irrational exuberance will pop the image bubble. And car buyers will ... uh ...

... curb their enthusiasm.

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