According to the report, the Japanese carmaker’s “Electrified” campaign attempted to capitalise on growing electric vehicle (EV) demand to sell more polluting vehicles, majorly hybrids.

Corporate watchdog accuses Toyota of misleading marketing, greenwashing

The report alleges that Toyota manipulated Google’s search algorithms in order to misdirect millions of consumers across Europe, the US and Australia searching for information, specifically on EVs towards petrol hybrid cars instead

A new report by global corporate watchdog Ekō claimed Toyota made false green claims targeting its customers through misleading marketing on 25 official Toyota websites in 23 countries, spanning a number of languages.

According to the report, the Japanese carmaker’s “Electrified” campaign attempted to capitalise on growing electric vehicle (EV) demand to sell more polluting vehicles, majorly hybrids. The report documented how the company allegedly repeatedly used terms like “electrification”, “electrified” and even “electric” in misleading ways to imply that its hybrid engine vehicles are akin to, and interchangeable with, electric vehicles.

The lifecycle emissions of hybrids and plug-in hybrid vehicles are much closer to polluting conventional petrol cars than to battery electric vehicles. The report said that hybrids only achieve a 21% reduction compared to an equivalent petrol car, while plug-in hybrids’ improvements are limited to 26%, when assessing the climate pollution caused to make and run the vehicle. Battery electric vehicles, in contrast, deliver far greater reductions, even in least favourable scenarios.

Toyota aimed to manufacture a record-breaking 10.2 million vehicles in 2023— almost all of them powered by internal combustion engines (ICE). Toxic emissions from these cars continue to exacerbate air pollution and cause tens of thousands of premature deaths per year.

Manipulating search engines

The report alleged that Toyota manipulated Google’s search algorithms in order to misdirect millions of consumers across Europe, the US and Australia searching for information, specifically on EVs towards petrol hybrid cars instead. 

On viewing the source code of Toyota’s Electrified web pages, Ekō claimed that they are carefully crafted to optimise meaning-making “under the hood” to trick AI bots to conflate “electrified” and “electric”, which in turn influences what web search engines and chatbots say to consumers. 

For example, the report claimed, Toyota’s Italian Electrified campaign has muddied the waters sufficiently to trick Google’s AI to display a list of Toyota vehicles which burn fossil fuels in response to the question “Quali sono le Toyota elettriche?” (Which Toyotas are electric?).

Jake Dubbins, Co-Chair Conscious Advertising Network, said, “This research shows how the ad-tech industry is being gamed in order to delay climate action. Google serving petrol car search results to the citizens that have asked the question ‘Which Toyotas are electric?’ is a clear case of greenwashing. The ASA and its international partners should urgently look into this case. Big tech should also urgently update policies and enforcement mechanisms to deal with the promotion and monetisation of false solutions to the climate crisis pushed by advertisers.”

Experts said such ads deliberately manipulate search results and can be weaponized to significantly skew results and distort the lens through which people search for information. Therefore, the report recommended chatbot and search engine companies to invest more in making their software resistant to greenwashing and other disinformation.

Reporting greenwashing attempts 

The report recommended the network of consumer protection authorities to investigate Toyota’s websites and other marketing materials for violations. It also suggested that advertising standards authorities in respective countries should investigate Toyota for violations of code of advertising practice and guidelines for marketers.

The report emphasised that “Electrified” is not a synonym of “Electric” in the context of vehicle powertrains. Searching for “Toyota electric vehicles” should not list vehicles that burn fossil fuels, although they are marketed as “Electrified” by Toyota.

Therefore, it also recommended Google, Microsoft, and other developers of web search engines and generative artificial intelligence chatbots such as Google Bard, Bing Chat, and ChatGPT to invest more in making their software resistant to greenwashing and other disinformation.