TELL ME AGAIN HOW MUCH FUN THIS TRAFFIC IS
by Robert Gelfand
American Reporter Correspondent
San Pedro, Calif
LOS ANGELES -- Anyone who watches American television will discover that we are a nation of devil-may-care adventurers who drive shiny new cars at high speeds and pilot our SUVs through places full of scenic grandeur. It's never a boring day in the land of auto advertising.
Automotive tv commercials are first and foremost an exercise in celebrating antisocial behavior. A brief session of tv watching should demonstrate the point adequately. This week, we can see a Dodge pickup truck doing a flying leap over what appears to be a public road. We can see a Jeep fording a stream at high speed, positively bouncing as it hits the water. We can see a Cadillac speeding along an empty road and we can see a Land Rover driven roughshod right up to the edge of a cliff that faces on a miles-deep canyon.
That these ads all depict dangerous, antisocial behavior should be obvious. Driving a multi-ton pickup fast enough to achieve liftoff on a public highway may make for an interesting visual effect, but it surely is not something that we would want our teenage children to be attempting. The low-slung coupes rounding highway curves at high speed are just Highway Patrol bait to me.
As to the off-road depictions, the violence to nature and selfish destructiveness are implicit, even if not quite explicit. Alpine meadows, natural stream beds and desert canyons are easily damaged by multi-ton vehicles grinding through and over them. Environmentally sensitive campers understand the point, and follow the rules.
There ism an etiquette to wilderness travel just as there is an etiquette to fine dining. The correct practice of wilderness travel is even more important than the choice of the correct soup spoon, because driving irresponsibly can do great damage to the land.
Viewed in this context, we should decry the practice of selling SUVs by showing them ripping up meadows, fatally damaging river banks, and destroying the desert crust, but that is what television advertising shows.
When you watch enough automotive commercials and consider what they depict, the theme of antisocial behavior becomes obvious. The trucks jumping over obstacles, the cars driven at blinding speed and the reckless use of heavy vehicles in pristine natural environments are an adolescent fantasy of speed, violence and irresponsibility.
Even when a tv commercial doesn't show a car being used in a dangerous way, the advertisers figure out how to glorify antisocial behavior in some other form. An ad for Volkswagen shows a young couple listening to loud music and dancing with great exuberance. They are so jubilant that they leap up and down on the floor of their apartment, driving the older fellow on the floor below to distraction. To anyone centered in the real world, they are acting like jerks. The old fellow pounds on the ceiling with a broomstick, and they get the point, sort of.
The next scenes show them driving through traffic to another place which they buy or rent, and finally we get to see them in their new living room, jumping up and down to loud music, as the car sits prettily on their new driveway.
It seems that even in this commercial, which represents the car as nothing more than transportation, the message that comes across is the desirability of being completely free to act out, of being completely free to be loud and obtrusive. It is the freedom to act without guilty feelings about bothering other people - in short, to be as much of a jerk as you want. Even while avoiding the depiction of dangerous driving, the advertisers make it clear that an essential element of automotive advertising is to depict antisocial behavior as pleasurable, benign, fun.
Car ads are the next best thing to an infantile fantasy of omnipotence. There is the control of the material world and the ability to do whatever you like to other people without fear of punishment, all wrapped up in a brand new toy.
There was one modest exception, which was an ad for a Honda sedan. There wasn't any of that school yard-bully fantasizing, but there was another element that leads to the deeper intent of all these ads.
The Honda is shown in rapid sequence being put together almost science-fictionally. What develops before our eyes is a shiny aerodynamic thing which might as well be a one-man spaceship.
The Honda commercial demonstrates a style that is fairly common in the genre - an element of the spaceship fantasy. Remember how, as the Starship Enterprise goes into warp drive on the old Star Trek show, it disappears dramatically into the distance, leaving a hyperdimensional vapor trail behind. The modern car ad doesn't follow the same script, but the video editors give it a look that attempts to create a similarly exotic effect. It is done with rapid intercutting, the use of the speedup effect (available to modern video editors just by turning a dial), and all manner of odd camera angles. Hanging the camera a foot above the road makes the car look faster, like a rocket ship in a Saturday morning cartoon.
None of this has much to do with actuality.
There is a clear and obvious difference between the world of the car commercials and the world we live in. For the three-quarters of the American population who live in the urban environment, there is not a lot of time spent whipping breezily through sun-baked tropical canyons on the way to a waterfall. There is the grind of commuter traffic and the boredom of sitting in traffic on the way to the mall. There is waiting until the light turns green and waiting for bumper-to-bumper traffic to thin out.
Seen in this light, it is not so hard to understand why the car companies script all that antisocial behavior and dangerous driving into their commercials. The lawbreaking and the environmental pillage are really just the elements of a visual joke. The underlying message, as false as false can be, is that driving is fun, if only you are wise enough to buy the right brand. Somehow, purchasing that Mitsubishi will mean that for you, there is no traffic to get in your way on the downtown streets in the early evening. For the SUV buyer, there will be undiscovered lakes populated by tropical birds that you can reach on half a tank from the comfort of your own driveway. I wonder how many tropical paradises exist within an hour's drive of Indianapolis?
There is a danger in allowing these ads to seep into the national consciousness without refutation. To a considerable extent, people understand that it is not in their best interest to accept the claims of tv commercials uncritically, but there has to be an effect, however residual, on the national mindset from watching all this propaganda night after night.
The reality of car ownership is quite a different matter from what the manufacturers try to sell us, and has a vast literature of its own. Most of us are familiar with the magazine Consumer Reports and its automotive reviews, or the Edwards line of pricing guides and reviews.
There is also a political context which has been less well covered, particularly by the mass commercial media. Gregg Easterbrook published "Axle of Evil: America's Twisted Love Affair with Sociopathic Cars" in The New Republic back in January, 2003. It is still available on-line for subscribers at www.tnr.com. In what became a seminal publication, Easterbrook popularized the work of Keith Bradsher, who authored the book "High and Mighty: SUVs - the world's Most Dangerous Vehicles and How They Got That Way."
In quoting Bradsher, Easterbrook considers the view that SUVs are particularly dangerous to their own occupants due to their propensity to roll over, and equally dangerous to the occupants of other cars due to their size and weight. They are also much less fuel efficient than they need to be, and much more air-polluting than they could be. He further develops the argument that all of this was preventable, but that federal policies over the past 20 years have worsened an unhealthy situation.
The message was not popular in all quarters. Jonathan Adler wrote a piece for the National Review (available at nationalreview.com) that heartily disagrees with Easterbrook. Adler argues that Easterbrook's piece "seethes with outrage over the popularity of large four-wheel-drive vehicles and drips with contempt for their owners."
The crux of the argument is simple. For Easterbrook, it is not only fair but desirable that the government take a strong role in regulating the spread of larger and more dangerous SUVs. He writes in Easterblogg, "And please don't tell me SUVs and pickup trucks should not be regulated because an American has a "right" to any kind of vehicle he or she desires. ... Most products are subject to reasonable regulation for public safety, and courts have long upheld this premise." To Adler, the position is quite the opposite: "Yet what sort of car to drive is a choice other drivers should be free to make for themselves."
There is some dispute over the intrinsic danger of SUVs to their occupants, but there is little disputing the dangers that SUVs pose to other cars.
It is a big subject that deserves dissemination to an audience that goes beyond the elite readers of political journals.
The serious damage to our lungs, our lives and our balance of trade deficit should be important subjects for discussion. It would be a real improvement if the mainstream media took the subject more seriously. We need more than the television commercial view of automotive reality.