In recent years I've noticed an increasingly frequent trend in advertising of
automobiles. Especially apparent in the electronic media, but also in printed advertising.
The trend I've seen is toward an ever-greater degree
of anti-social advertising, with destructive and dangerous messages, and ever more
What used to be
It once was that auto manufacturers were content to advertise smooth rides, quiet
motors, and good handling. This was because roads were rougher in days past, engine
technology was somewhat more primitave, and handling characteristics of automobiles was a
science in its infancy. Cars were not as roomy or comfortable to ride in.
Great progress has been made on all fronts. Roads in much of North America are nearly
billiard-table-smooth (although some readers will be tempted to believe that all potholes
were simply collected from around the country and stored in their area). Suspension, and
engine technology have progressed such that even inexpensive cars give quiet and
comfortable rides, and have dramatically better handling characteristics than cars of 10,
20 or 30 years ago.
What we have now
Less frequently do advertisers emphasize quiet smooth rides, or even elegance of style
(there being precious little differentiation between one brand and the next), or even
accessory packages so commonly touted in the past.
Of late, we have an excess of advertising that portrays dangerous or aggressive driving
practices, total disregard for public safety, absurd speed, ridiculous expectations of
performance and a number of subplots too insulting to mention here, mostly dealing with
the implication of women as included accessories.
Dangerous Driving Practices
Probably the most egregious of these new ads are those which show "sports
cars" screaming down winding road, around blind corners, in four wheel slides.
These ads are always justified by the tiny fleeting caption "Professional
Driver on a Closed Course". Perhaps you missed that part. You are SUPPOSED
to miss that part.
This little disclaimer is supposed to exhonorate the advertiser of all responsibility
for any copycat actions they induce among the impressionable.
It's very presence is
an admission that the ads DO invoke such copycat behavior.
If you think I'm exaggerating the effect these commercials have, just ride down to the
local cruising zone in any town in the country on a Saturday night, and watch the boys in
their cars trying to impress each other with the strength of their ankle muscles (those
used to depress the accelerator pedal).
Why do automobile companies show their cars doing these maneuvers when there is
virtually no time in one's driving career when one needs to pull these stunts?
The implication of speed with out actually stating the speed the vehicle is capable of
has been raised to a fine art. Unmentioned is the fact that you can never go as fast as
the advertisements imply, if for no other reason than that you are hemmed in by traffic on
Yet we see advertisements implying you can roar from New York city to some upstate
fishing village for chowder on your lunch break. Never mind the fact that traffic in New
York is such that you are unlikely to even get out of your local borough before
to be back at your desk.
Highway speeding is bad enough, but some companies insist on showing their products
speeding through cities without regard for traffic signs or anything else that might
wander into harms way.
Disregard for other road users
In fact, the central theme of these latest series of advertisements is a total
disrespect for the lives of other users of the road, whether they be occupants of
vehicles, cyclists or simply pedestrians.
The "professional driver over a closed course" flashed over these ads is lost
on the 16 year old with the car keys for the evening. He is far more likely to run down
old Mrs. Duffy as she walks across the street for the evening paper as he is to actually
make that corner in a four wheel power drift shown on the commercial he saw on TV last
night. But rest assured, he will try the stunt. If you don't believe me, sit out on your
own porch on a quiet summer evening and listen to the roar of engines, the squeal of tires
which you can hear for literally miles.
Why the Change
There has never been a time when you will need the creature comforts of a vehicle more
than today, as with today's traffic you will be spending more time in your car than ever
before - going nowhere, but being passed by bicyclists, if not pedestrians.
According to Automotive News (3/6/2000) over 83% of car buyers in 1997-1999 rate safety
as extremely important. Yet the Insurance Institute for Highway safety finds that Safety is only
featured in 2% of all advertising in that year. 17% featured performance.
So why this change from advertising the smooth rides and creature comforts of vehicle
interiors to the lawlessness, risk taking and aggressive driving? Why emphasize the road
rage in a period when that rage is becoming the number one problem?
I think the reason is primarily that motor vehicles are all physically, to
say nothing of legally, restricted to traveling at the prevailing speed of traffic, so the
advertisers appeal to the yearning for speed and the open road that every "Trapped in
Traffic" commuter dreams of.
Note this: the advertisers tend to stress exactly those things that you CAN NOT have,
that their product CAN NOT provide: Traffic free roads, unlimited speeds, professional
driver on a closed course.
This trend to advertise exactly what they can not deliver is largely unique to auto
Soup companies advertise soup, and they deliver soup. Laundry detergent companies
advertise soap and clean clothes, and they succeed in delivering both. Computers perform
as advertised, and over the counter medications largely deliver on their promises. None of
them go out of their way to show their product being used in anti-social and criminal
But automobile advertisers purposely depict their products breaking every law in the
books and endangering everyone in sight.
"Ok, So What?" You ask. We all know that you can't believe advertising and
the American television audience is smart enough to recognize romantic idealization of a
product for what it is, and even the absurdity of zooming down empty city streets blasting
through intersections is accepted and understood as forgivable poetic license. "None
of us believe the ads, we're not fooled by them, they're harmless".
Or are they?
It is my contention that this form of advertising is anti-social. It demonstrates and
encourages aggressive driving practices that endanger other road users and causes
accidents. It feeds the road rage among the impatient drivers in response to the slightest
transgression and encourages the willingness to transgress at slightest opportunity.
You need only ride a bike for a few days to see a few incidents of this type of
behavior among drivers. Stop signs no longer mean stop, speed limits are for other people,
pedestrians in cross walks are to be ignored or scared back to the curb, and getting ahead
of that idiot in the car in front becomes a victory in and of itself. Did
people always drive this way?
Road rage and traffic tantrums are relatively new developments. They have appeared on
the roadway at about the same time as the auto industry started using aggressive driving
advertisements and "professional drivers on a closed course".
Correlation does not prove causation. It's just as likely that both road rage and this
new theme of advertising are in response to the same stimuli, such as, for example,
Nevertheless, it is hard to see a way in which this style of advertising can be helpful
in making the roads safer. Its hard to see how it can improve the image of
automobiles and their impact on society.
Clearly the situation is not yet out of hand, as the actual incidents of aggression
toward cyclists are fairly rare, and usually regional in nature. Motorists seem largely
content to take out their aggressions on each other. Still, "scapegoating" of
bicycle traffic is common at public planning meetings where transportation issues
discussed. Motorists blame bicycles for delays that are in fact imposed by the
volume of cars.
If automobile companies were not trying to convince everyone that that the purchase of
a new vehicle would solve the problems of commuting across the city by allowing one to
roar through deserted city streets at 100mph, the mere seconds of delay imposed by
encountering a bicyclist or having to stop at a red light would never be a concern.
Just Ask them to Stop...
Advertisers must accept responsibility for the images the put forth. With over
40,000 automobile deaths per year, why even suggest aggressive driving behavior?
It's time to start sending email to the public relations department of the automobile
companies airing such advertisements. Complain about the ads, and promise never to
buy a car from them. If even a few per week arrive, someone may notice.
Our streets are not populated with professional drivers, and they can hardly be
considered a closed course. It's time to get back to advertising to the market,
rather than against it.