Ad professionals are pretty smart. Or, maybe more accurately, they’re pretty perceptive, able to pick up on trends, memes, and slang and insert them into slick commercials that have almost become events in themselves. Most of the time the ads are for mass consumption—I’m sure that if I was sitting with a petroleum engineer he or she would have something to say about Chevron’s commercial offerings, same thing with a grease monkey and those really annoying Dennis Leary-narrated Ford spots—so expecting any sort of nuance within those 15 or 30 second spaces is asking for a lot. But sometimes, when ad teams are feeling especially bold and knowledgeable (I’m sure expert consultants are involved), they insert themes into commercials that are, for lack of a better word, profoundly misguided. Like this one:
Alright so I can’t find the car commercial I was talking about in the vast archives of YouTube so this will be kind of funny: essentially a pretty standard 30-something is driving a sedan and he alternately looks out the driver and passenger side windows to see things symbolizing power and things symbolizing environmentalism. Not terribly creative but gets the point across plainly in the course of a 30-second ad, i.e. you don’t have to sacrifice power for being green. I swear I spent a few hours looking for this stupid commercial. I’ll link it if it comes on TV again and I can actually remember the make and model.
This guys gets to have the best of both worlds! He can have a humming 200 horsepower engine and not drop a mint every time he hits the pump! It’s a goddam miracle. He’s an environmentalist and a fun driver, the two paths have finally met in a sepia-toned wood.
I understand that CAFE standards have sort of been the Grand Compromise between the Federal Government, leaning ever so cautiously towards environmentalism, and the American auto manufacturers who are looking for the best way to make a buck without triggering another economic catastrophe. The latter ends have been wildly successful, and while the stock prices have been more Siberian than Himalayan for Ford and GM they aren’t groveling at the steps of the Capitol anymore—not by a long shot.
Better MPG ratings for cars have injected new life into these car companies for two interesting and opposing reasons: lighter wallets and greener consciences. The first reason is of course a more general economic driver, especially since American families are spending higher and higher percentages on their transportation costs as a proportion of their overall income. The days of Escalades and Yukons in middle class suburbs are most likely over for good (yes, I know how much that exact sentiment is aped in the general press) because most people can’t afford to put down $120 every time they fill up. (You can also expect that number to go up in the medium term for the typical peak-oil-finite-resource-conflict-zone reasons. Also, if we see the same sort of stagnant wages for the middle 50% of Americans in the next two decades like we did in the previous two—well you can draw your own conclusions.) Cars with higher MPG-ratings are going to start moving towards that golden market share (>50%) once the secondary market gets inundated with Prius (Prii?), Insights, Camrys, Accords, etc. because of the nature of the car game. For the consumer without financial worries, though, buying a fuel-efficient car like a Prius or Insight is based on ostensible environmentalism—or as a good friend of Radials puts it: “conspicuous conservation”.
Let’s back up before we deconstruct that point, though. I understand the point of ads is to push product and that, most of the time, subtlety and nuance is not rewarded with higher volume sales and that building around a kernel of high concept truth (e.g. “Oil consumption is bad for the global environment”) is often enough to garner interest from the parties you’re trying to reach. Advertisements for high mileage vehicles are based in sort of a foggy reality where, unfortunately, the majority of progressive-minded people live when it comes to transportation. (I’m not saying I don’t live there when it comes to things like clothing; I’m a vegetarian yet still wear leather shoes. We confound our beliefs everyday, you just have to admit it to yourself.) We allow ourselves to be deluded because it’s a lot easier than dealing with hard realities or depressing truths, even when we think we’re facing those realities and truths. Ad professionals know those anthropological intricacies really well, and they know exactly how to make us feel better about doing something that might not be all that good for the world.
Fuel efficient and hybrid cars might be one of their greatest successes. The realities around the car industry are pretty simple: (1) buying a new car is always worse for the environment than buying a used one, even if the used one is a Ford Bronco and the new one is a Camry Hybrid and (2) just because you use less gas to get around doesn’t mean you are actually reducing petroleum consumption and, by proxy, saving the environment. (I understand that some hybrids are technically “zero emission vehicles” but in reality the difference between conventional combustion engines and hybrid-electric ones is a 30% reduction in CO2 release—also the reason that we’re using hybrid and fuel efficient interchangeably.) The first point is self-explanatory, but the second one takes a little more explanation and is an axiom that is well known in transportation circles but not necessarily outside of them.
We drive a lot more than we used to. “From 1977 to 2001, the number of miles driven every year by Americans rose by 151%,” says a 2008 article in the Wall Street Journal, thought the intermittent price spikes for gas have created a relatively flat VMT chart from 2007-2012. (VMT = vehicle miles traveled, an important term for transpo-nerds.) Best antidote to that flatline? Better fuel efficiencies which can effectively offset gas price increases and balance demand back to normal levels, meaning we’ll drive more even if the costs are marginally higher. There’s been a lot of chatter about setting VMT reduction goals and some government bodies are even working to base insurance and gas taxes off VMT, a more accurate representation of an individuals driving habits and thus their relative risk-levels and proportional benefits from gas tax receipts. I know that last sentence was extremely boring to read, but honestly those sorts of programs will probably change everything about car ownership.
Environmentally, nothing short of reduced driving will really have much of an impact and that means to stop thinking we’re saving the world by actually consuming more. The commercials can tell you over and over again that you’re being “green” by getting that hybrid in your garage but at the end of the day that’s a decision that is based solely on your wallet, and advertising professionals apparently know that better than we do.