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French car commercials will soon urge buyers to reconsider driving

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In France, car commercials will need language that encourages consumers not to drive. Tanya Rozhnovskaya via Getty Images

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France will soon have a new requirement that car ads must include messaging that encourages people not to drive. In the ads, auto makers will have to include language that suggests consumers take public transportation or bike or walk. The new rule takes effect in March. But does this kind of “anti-product” messaging work? 

France’s new law means that somewhere in that ad trying to get you to buy a zippy Peugeot or new VW, or Hyundai,  car makers basically have to say, “Hey, do you really need this?” 

Ads will encourage people to consider alternatives, especially for short trips. 

This was an easy move for the French government, said Jessica Roberts, who runs transportation change campaigns with Alta Planning and Design. 

“It is efficient, it also is cost-free. And it’s unlikely to do any harm,” she said.

And Roberts said this is one thing that politicians can require. 

“So I sort of like that France said, ‘Hmm, well, we can’t tell car companies not to advertise their product. But what is, you know, what leverage do we have?'”

The ads will also include a hashtag that translates to “move, pollute less” – the idea being that it’ll become a social campaign too. 

And if it gets picked up, and people besides carmakers and the government start posting about walking and biking – that could be influential, said Kate White, professor of marketing and behavioral science at the University of British Columbia.

“So if it also signals, this idea of a social norm of other people are doing it and you see people getting on board and talking about it, it kind of makes it normative, right?” she said.

Except that changing a habit is extremely hard, especially with something as ingrained as getting into our cars. 

“And so just sort of giving people a very soft public health message effectively, through adverts. I don’t think it’s going to cut it,” said Joseph Sherlock, a behavioral scientist at the Center for Advanced Hindsight at Duke University.  

He said to change habits, you need to create friction or barriers to bad behavior. Sherlock said, take indoor smoking bans. 

“So you have this sort of big social stigma and increased friction around having to go outside to smoke,” he said.

Sherlock said that’s the kind of rule governments should be putting in place if they’re serious about disrupting car culture. 

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