You might think you're a person who cares about the environment, but what have you actually done about it? How many baby turtles have you saved? None? You do realize that you could just strap a giant metal rake to the back of your SUV, drive in a frenzied pattern all over the beach until you pick up enough trash and voila—you just cleared the path for a buttload of sea turtles to lay their precious eggs in the sand. Easy. No big deal.
This appears to be the message sent in a truly astounding 30-second car ad from Kia, in which a driver does exactly that.
When I first saw the spot last month, I watched it over and over again, looking for some sign that it was a parody. A car company with a presumably massive ad budget, and the knowledge that the burning of fossil fuels is the single largest contributor to global warming in the U.S., wouldn't release something so patently ridiculous, would they?
Seeking answers, I called up David Godfrey, the executive director of the Sea Turtle Conservancy, a Florida-based nonprofit. Godfrey said he knew the ad well, because the agency that made it had asked him for feedback, and lucky for us, his NDA had expired so he could chat about it. According to Godfrey, Kia had even floated the possibility that they could "partner" with his conservancy on it, and that his nonprofit might receive a substantial, six-figure contribution for their assistance.
But when Godfrey saw the first cut, he was troubled. "We obviously didn't want to publicly be the group getting the money if this was the content of the ad," Godfrey told me. So he passed along some constructive criticism, noted that the ad might "come back to bite you," but the dialogue stopped. Then he saw the finished product when it aired in early April.
"I actually contacted the agency and I said, 'Look, you guys have a problem, because this ad depicts things that are in fact illegal in Florida and on nesting beaches.' You can't drive cars and do donuts on sea turtle nesting beaches," Godfrey said. "You also can't rake the beach with what is essentially farm equipment…How do you know you're not running over nests? How do you know you're not raking up hatchlings?"
According to Godfrey, the ad agency thanked him, said they'd pass along their concerns to Kia, and that was that.
"There are ways to do this ad where the owner of this Kia is concerned about turtles, they're concerned about plastics, they pull up next to the beach, they get out with bags, they and a couple friends walk the beach, pick up the garbage and put it in the back of the vehicle and then the turtles nest," Godfrey said.
"The Kia brand is designed for the creators of tomorrow. So, when it came to the Sportage, we wanted to use our driver's creativity to inspire some good in the world in an innovative way," one agency exec says in a blog post touting the clip, adding that they "wanted to keep the story as authentic as possible, so we filmed the spot in a region of Florida where sea turtles often return to nest." (Godfrey said that in his opinion, the sea turtles shown in the ad are olive ridley turtles, that are mostly found in Costa Rica and parts of Mexico and nest during the daylight hours. "It's the only species that does what's being shown in that ad.")
We asked Kia why they chose to run the commercial in its final form, despite the advice they got from Godfrey, and what they would say to those who see the ad as textbook greenwashing.
"The intention behind Kia's 'Beachcomber' ad was to generate awareness of the importance of sea turtle conservation, maintenance of clean beaches as their habitat, and to help inspire much needed change," the company said in a statement.
Kia also wanted to dispel any notion that it is in fact a good idea to attach a massive metal rake to the back of your SUV and drive across the beach during turtle nesting season: the commercial was filmed at "a location in Florida that allowed driving on the beach in January well outside of turtle nesting season," all local permits were secured, and "there were no real sea turtles or real sea turtle eggs present during the filming."
In many ways, Godfrey was the perfect candidate to consult on a project like this, because he had already made an ad with Volvo around 20 years ago—the one where the guy uses the car’s fancy anti-lock brakes to avoid hitting a sea turtle, then he puts it back into the ocean, and goes on his way. Volvo gave him the animatronic turtle they used in the ad. "The messaging there was a hell of a lot better."
"Sea Turtle Inc is proud to work with Kia given their stated and proven commitment to the safety of turtles everywhere," Wendy Knight, the CEO of Sea Turtle, Inc., told us in a statement passed along by Kia. "This is evidenced by our new partnership and their generous support of our mission of conservation and rehabilitation of sea turtles."
Kia did not answer our questions about how much money they donated to the organization, and our messages to Sea Turtle Inc. have not been returned.
When I spoke to Godfrey, he was on a boat a mile off the coast of Hernando Beach in Florida's Gulf Coast, tagging juvenile green sea turtles. I could hear the ocean. "We're completely surrounded by turtles," he told me, as I sat at my kitchen table in my tiny New York City apartment.
Godfrey has been working in sea turtle conservation for 30 years, and has been the executive director of Sea Turtle Conservancy since 1997. He is a bit of a realist, who waved off my complaints that an automobile company would dare to try and co-opt adorable sea turtles to sell more planet-killing machines.
"They're profiting off of things that impact the planet. Why not give some of that back to address environmental issues? On some level, Kia and this agency had the kernel of the right idea," he said. "There was an epic fail in terms of getting the messaging right."