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
The costs of driving are overwhelming, but yield only questionable benefits
People make a stunning sacrifice for the perceived privilege to drive, ride in, and store automobiles:
While at first glance society appears to bear these costs to satisfy demand for mobility, a closer look at the evidence shows that cars provide limited, if any benefit, relative to other transportation options:
- Automobiles cause ten times more fatalities than public transit for every mile a person travels.
- Cars frustrate many people. For example, a survey of Arlington, Va. residents found not only that automobile drivers and passengers are less satisfied than users of any other option, but also that the more car travel they endure, the less satisfied they are with their overall mobility.
- Car companies have invested some of their profits into expanding options other than personal vehicle ownership, such as ride-hailing. However, the benefits of ride-hailing are hotly debated due to that option’s safety, congestion, labor, and environmental
Auto industry advertising worsens driving’s societal costs
The automobile industry spends $14 billion of its annual revenue from consumers – more than the total federal transit budget and second most of any economic sector – to advertise to the U.S. market. Evidence suggests that the industry depends on this advertising to overcome its product’s high-cost, low-benefit reality. Here’s how car commercials encourage behavior that increases driving’s costs to society:
Promoting large vehicles
Advertisements selling SUVs and pickup trucks as “manly” and “patriotic” cause people to spend more on these large vehicles, as the Center for Biological Diversity’s Vera Pardee writes. Some commercials even portray such vehicles as desirable in urban areas. For example, a Ford ad from earlier this year shows a happy-looking group of people driving through a city center in an SUV; at one point they pass a jam-packed bus, but the street they’re on is somehow congestion-free.
Though car companies enjoy greater profit margins thanks to the behavior this messaging induces, society loses. Big vehicles not only are more expensive for their users, but increase driving’s burden across the board by taking up more space, polluting more, and posing a greater threat to people on bike or foot.
Anecdotally, the Davis, Ca. cul-de-sac where I grew up offered a (literal) crash course on this burden. For years, a neighbor parked his oversized white pickup – too big to fit in his driveway – in front of the entrance to a bike path at the end of the street, blocking access to the community’s platinum-rated cycling network.
Normalizing 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.
Auto industry advertisements – and companies’ associated payments to media outlets – also influence news coverage of traffic safety. A 2017 study found that news outlets cover car model recalls less if the vehicle’s manufacturer advertises on their platform. In their paper, the researchers presented evidence indicating that the resulting under-coverage of vehicle recalls leads to more traffic deaths.
Fostering a false sense of security
For example, a Fiat Chrysler ad told viewers that, following the spring’s COVID-19 shutdowns, “engines are restarting” and “park is shifting into drive.” Fiat’s COVID ad was the top-performing U.S. car commercial during the week of May 4, garnering more than 260 million impressions.
The Fiat commercial was part of a three-week doubling of auto industry advertising spending as states reopened their economies. While car travel encouraged by this late-spring advertising surge may have brought the industry some money, a PolicyLab model soon showed that the virus was spreading along major highways, hitching rides that helped fuel the U.S.’s deadly summer outbreaks.
Regulatory tools and messaging strategies can inform the public and facilitate better access
Restrictions on tobacco ads provide arguable justification for preventing high-cost, low-benefit sectors like the auto industry from advertising at all. In the United Kingdom, a New Weather Institute report issued in August used just one of driving’s costs – climate impact – to make the case for a complete ban of SUV ads, with the decades-long campaign against Big Tobacco the blueprint for the organization’s plan.
However, even if sustainable transportation advocates were to prevail against the politically powerful auto industry, there’s no guarantee an advertising ban alone would bring cars’ costs under control. The attention Tesla CEO Elon Musk’s public statements falsely tying transit to crime and disease have received, despite his company not spending anything on traditional advertising, exemplifies this risk.
A more holistic combination of regulation and messaging, however, could yield significant benefits for access and mobility. Here are three strategies that there is already transportation-industry precedent for:
Restricting harmful content
U.S. state and federal regulators are already tough on car dealers who mislead buyers as to the terms of their loans and leases, as described in an FTC report. As almost half of car commercials feature dangerous behavior and such advertising renders people more likely to view unsafe driving positively, holding auto manufacturers to the same transparency standards as the local businesses that sell their vehicles could do even more to protect consumers and the public.
Countries including Canada and Australia do not allow car companies to show dangerous driving in their advertisements, for example. Though these countries feature metropolitan areas with substantial suburbanization, similar to the U.S., people are less than half as likely to die on their roads.
Disclosing the true costs of driving
U.S. TV viewers are familiar with the long lists of side effects FDA requires pharmaceutical companies to include in their commercials. But they may not know that there’s a similar effort underway to better educate drivers: a movement to add warning labels describing car fuel’s climate change impact and other environmental harm – also known as warming labels – to gas pumps. Such warming labels are mandated in Sweden and have been considered in multiple North American jurisdictions.
This strategy is susceptible to industry manipulation. For example, drug manufacturers strategically dilute the impact of their ads’ side-effects lists by listing potentially severe symptoms alongside frequent but minor ones. Oil companies similarly influenced the content of North Vancouver, Canada’s required warming labels to emphasize trivial steps like tire inflation instead of climate change’s systemic causes.
Nevertheless, a 2018 review by Consumer Reports found that fuel economy and vehicle safety are among car buyers’ top priorities, indicating that mandating full transparency about driving’s costs – including unbiased warming labels and crash safety ratings that incorporate impacts to people outside vehicles – could significantly reform transportation behavior.
Educating people about the full array of mobility options at their disposal
Traffic safety is a common subject of public service announcements, which do not require the often-pricey ad buys regular commercials do. However, while traffic safety PSAs tend to highlight dangers of certain behavior, such as drunk or distracted driving, they don’t effectively educate the public about forms of mobility than can help people avoid these dangers.
Despite their limited resources, transit agencies produce some pretty clever ads, so re-tooling transportation-related PSAs to give this messaging more exposure may boost its effectiveness. Further, such PSAs could draw attention to broader transportation demand management initiatives, particularly in suburban and rural areas where people may not be aware of all the options available to them:
- Orange County, Ca.’s transit agency produced a commercial showing a family riding buses to regional destinations including a shopping mall, zoo, and beach, highlighting the sustainable accessibility those suburban businesses and places offer.
- Yosemite National Park, which is notorious for traffic congestion despite its rural nature, resumed full regional bus service but limited automobile entry upon its COVID-19 reopening. Yosemite’s vehicle reservation page includes a link to the transit system’s website, informing people that the park is accessible without a car.
- Biking on country roads can be a viable form of mobility in rural places, for a variety of trips. Maps displaying safe, optimal cycling routes can bolster this efficient form of access. Well-mapped rural-area biking networks I have used include the Backroad Bikeways radiating out of Three Oaks, Mi. and Northern California’s Solano-Yolo BikeLinks.
Is now the time to reform our transportation culture?
In a time when U.S. transit agencies are facing budget crisis-forced service cuts, some may question whether it is appropriate to prioritize messaging and communications initiatives right now, as opposed to focusing on urgent needs such as obtaining additional stimulus funding.
But during COVID-19, communities have tapped potential that cars previously stole. For example, in Washington, DC’s Cleveland Park neighborhood – where I live – eight restaurants are providing outdoor seating in a pedestrianized service lane that previously hosted 25 parking spots, enabling the establishments to stay open. Valuing sustained COVID-era jobs at the CARES Act’s $600 of weekly unemployment benefits and assuming the national average of about 15 employees per restaurant, the converted lane is yielding $72,000 weekly – nearly $3,000 per former parking spot – for the local economy.
Quality-of-life benefits like these just might make people more attuned to driving’s costs, leading to closer examination of the extent to which auto-dependence is a product of informational manipulation by the industry and, accordingly, catalyzing greater scrutiny of car companies’ advertisements.
That California cul-de-sac of my youth even offers hope for a car culture rethink. This past month, the aforementioned truck-parking neighbors moved out. Now, the home’s new owners not only don’t block access to the bike path with their vehicles but have put up their own traffic-calming sign in the street.