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It’s time to do something about car advertising

Car advertisements are everywhere. Until now, there hasn’t been much public discussion about them. Andy Furillo, writing for Mobility Lab, argues that it’s time to change that:

Automobiles impose staggering costs on society. Informed mobility behavior can reduce these costs, but the U.S. auto industry has near-unchecked power to control people’s perception of transportation through advertising. Accordingly, car commercials are a key sustainer of auto-dependence.

In contrast to automobile ads, the public messaging capabilities of other high-cost industries – like tobacco and pharmaceuticals – are regulated, helping manage these industries’ behavioral influence. By using similar strategies to manage car companies – which would build on transportation-industry precedent that already exists – our leaders could improve access for people. These strategies include:

  • Limiting the extent to which car advertisements can portray dangerous driving
  • Requiring car companies to disclose downsides and externalities of their products
  • Retooling traffic safety-related public service announcements to educate people more holistically about the transportation options they have

And he goes on to make the case for why these strategies are necessary. If you haven’t, it’s worth reading his article in its entirety.

The first pillar of his argument is the “high cost to society” aspect. While it’s an important topic, I’m going to overlook it for now. I find those kinds of discussions abstract and impersonal. Sure, it’s awful that people in the U.S. pay $1.3 trillion dollars personally on cars, but how many trillions do we spend on other stuff? Besides, people love cars. When you are in love with something, you find ways to justify the cost.

Car advertisements get away with promoting deadly behavior

His other arguments, I believe, carry much more emotional resonance. It’s hard to dispute his case for how car ads normalize unsafe driving:

Car commercials regularly glorify driving habits that kill and maim people, without making clear that these habits are dangerous. For example, a recent Nissan ad shows a driver making a high-speed right turn through an urban crosswalk that a person on foot has the signaled right of way to be in. Though Nissan USA’s YouTube video of the commercial has nearly seven times as many dislikes as likes, the webpage’s comments section is turned off, preventing the video’s nearly one million viewers from engaging in open discussion about the dangerous driving that likely contributed to the backlash.

I think anyone can agree this defies common sense. Advertisers should simply not be glorifying activities that kill people. Imagine if a chainsaw advertisement showed someone swinging it around on a public sidewalk. The fact that these are permitted is absurd.

He also discusses how car ads disproportionally push larger and larger cars. Larger cars are deadly-by-design, and it's a well known fact now that they kill more people than smaller ones. If the societal expenses are abstract or vague, the numbers of deaths aren’t. Besides, almost everyone simply doesn't need a giant SUV.

Using advertising as a force for good

Furillo touches on using advertising as a tool to educate the public on alternative transportation. I would like to expand the idea and suggest: why don’t we use advertising to combat car culture directly? We have public service campaigns that encourage drivers to wear seatbelts and to not drive drunk, but that’s not enough. Why not have ads that encourage people to drive smaller cars, or encourage people to drive slowly? If we can shame smokers on TV, why not shame aggressive drivers?