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Auto Makers Urged to Ease Off Gas Pedal in Their Commercials

March 28, 2001|JEANNE WRIGHT | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Ever wonder why there are so many reckless road warriors driving with that "no fear" mentality?

Just check out some of the auto industry's advertising.

Hyping speed and aggression behind the wheel seems to be what much of car advertising is all about today, complained reader Tony Amodeo of Los Angeles: "You see this aggression on the roads. Vehicles speeding, careening from lane to lane, and drivers tailgating."

"I don't know why the advertising agencies and [auto] companies that do this sort of harm aren't taken to task and their ads banned," he said.

The reason "speed-glorifying" ads continue to run is because they sell cars and because, in the United States, much commercial content is protected by the right of free speech, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a nonprofit research organization backed by automobile insurers.

Of course, that doesn't excuse some of these irresponsible ads, say safety advocates who have protested advertisements they believe have crossed the line.

Auto makers defend the ads, noting that they attach disclaimers informing viewers that the drivers are professionals performing on closed courses. The ads, they claim, do not advocate that people break the law or drive recklessly.

"We never want to have our advertising seen as being irresponsible," said Nissan spokesman Dean Case. The ads, he said, are approved by the auto maker's attorneys. Television networks also require that auto makers be able to prove their advertising claims.

Furthermore, said Peter Goodwin, Nissan's corporate manager for marketing and communications, "We have no information that says people emulate . . . what they see people doing in the commercials."

But safety advocates say that's not enough.

"The bottom line is we don't like these ads because it's clear that the ads will indirectly result in more deaths and injuries on the highways," said Clarence Ditlow, president of the Center for Auto Safety in Washington.

Auto makers are spending "billions on advertising performance vehicles, and the ads work," Ditlow said. "But they sell them to the wrong people--younger, riskier drivers who are more likely to do the kind of behavior shown in the ads. With society as a whole saying aggressive driving is a problem, ads that stress aggressive driving as a valued attribute are simply wrong," he said.

Neither the Federal Trade Commission, which has jurisdiction over most advertising, nor the Federal Communications Commission, which has authority over the broadcasting outlets that sell advertising, appear to have the power to restrict ads promoting speed or unsafe driving.

The FTC will investigate only those car ads that are allegedly deceptive or misleading about the vehicle's performance capabilities, said Mitch Katz, an FTC spokesman.

"I don't think anyone is going to question that a BMW can drive [fast] down a wet road," he said. And if an ad presents a vehicle doing something so far-fetched "that the average consumer wouldn't believe it," then the FTC wouldn't take action because of that unbelievability, according to Katz.

Brian O'Neill, president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, argues that even the most seemingly unbelievable ads can send the wrong message to drivers.

"There are some quite outrageous ads out there," O'Neill said. He pointed to the Nissan Pathfinder ad that shows a herd of drivers in the SUVs playing polo.

"Some of the ads suggest all kinds of things you can do in a Nissan Pathfinder without any indication that, if you tried to do some of those things, you'd probably roll it over," he said.

O'Neill admits that most drivers would not try to copy some of what appears in car ads. His concern, however, is the impact the ads have on teenagers.

"There is a drumbeat of messages that young drivers get--it's really OK to drive fast," O'Neill said. Unfortunately, "young people--especially young males--don't need encouragement to drive irresponsibly."

Certainly, there are many vehicle ads that appeal to drivers who see safety as a priority. Ads touting safety features and even crash-test results underscore the importance of safe driving.

For example, a current ad for the Mercedes M Class that uses the 1970s' hit "Staying Alive" as soundtrack for a series of crash test scenes, replete with rolling SUVs and bouncing test dummies, is a riveting and sobering commercial.

But for all the safety-conscious ads, there are many more selling speed and performance, O'Neill said. Last year, the institute published results of a study of car ads that appeared in 1998. It found that performance was the most pervasive theme in car ads that year.

"Despite all we know about how high speed contributes to injuries and deaths, this kind of performance is still being marketed to consumers as the defining aspect of a car," reported Susan Ferguson, the institute's vice president of research.

What can consumers do if they are annoyed by these kinds of ads?

Write to the heads of the auto companies, Ditlow suggests, or take it a step further and complain to the U.S. Transportation secretary.

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