Ad Nauseam 2010: The Year in Car Commercials

Car sales are up, auto shows are packing them in, and the GM IPO was oversubscribed, but there may be no surer indicator of the auto industry’s recovery than the renewed avalanche of car ads rumbling across every medium. And there’s no better way to get a glimpse of what a born-again car culture might look like than to stay on the couch for a spell, un-mute the TV, and watch—that’s right, on purpose—a sample of 2010’s ads selling us our car-centric way of life.  Here are some of the year’s most egregious attempts to get us into the dealership by conflating car ownership with American values.

Dodge Charger:  “Man’s Last Stand”

Chrysler stokes the gender wars with this ad suggesting that the American male may seem to have been tamed by the boss and neutered by the wife, but all that the rebel within needs to bust out is a $38K fully loaded Dodge Charger.  The road is his last refuge, the one place where he can still be a manly man.  He’ll “eat fruit” at home, but he won’t be a fruit in control of the kind of growling, ferocious muscle car that had its heyday back when men last really had it good.  (For a rejoinder, click here.)

Toyota Sienna: “Mommy Like”

How does a mom, stressed from commuting to work and shuttling the kids to soccer practice day in and day out, get away from it all?  Why, of course, by spending more time in her vehicle!  In this commercial for the Sienna minivan, Mommy steals some quality time alone—in the backseat where the kids usually get to have all the fun.  The message? Auto dependence’s problems are solved not by driving less but by buying more, including a new car chock-a-block with luxury options to distract us from the aggravation and tedium of the average 18 ½ hours Americans sit in a car each week.

Lexus: “The Next Big Thing”

Billions of dollars of ads touting safety have helped convince Americans that the phrase “safe car” is no oxymoron, notwithstanding the roughly 380,000 crash deaths over the past decade. Here’s a Lexus ad that takes to a dizzying new level the myth that car technology will solve—any minute now—the problems that the car itself has created. Its suggestion that “a real driver in a real car reacting to a real situation without real consequences” is a real possibility fosters a false sense of safety among drivers that encourages dangerous risk-taking.  It also deflects the push for meaningful regulation in areas such as roof crush and crash incompatibility.

Hyundai Sonata: “Turboface”

It’s nothing new for a car company to produce a commercial that encourages speeding as an expression of freedom.   But this Hyundai Sonata Turbo ad, set not on expansive wilderness roads but on compact city streets, makes the laughably miniscule disclaimer — “Professional driver on a closed course. Do not attempt”—more ironic than ever.

Hyundai Sonata: “Horizontal Bungee Jumping”

Another ad from Hyundai that finds risk-taking amusing, while also playing into the notion that we can protect ourselves from all those other bad drivers out there (in this case, the crazy young ’uns on the road)–if we just buy the right car.

Subaru: “Baby Driver”

A good parent buys the right car to protect their good children from all those bad drivers out there (in this case, the crazy young ‘uns on the road whose parents failed to give them the best car or the best advice).  This is just one of the latest and most pathos-laden of ads following a remarkable trend of exploiting kids to sell cars to adults and to peddle car culture to kids.  Reality bites back, though: there remains nothing more deadly to teenagers than crashes, and those with their own cars are more likely to die in them than those who share their parents’ vehicles.

Toyota Highlander: “Kid Cave”

Here’s another kid-driven beaut.  “Just because you’re a parent doesn’t mean you have to be lame,” needles Nathan in this SUV commercial from a campaign founded on the power of pester marketing.  Toyota is no doubt relying on surveys showing that the majority of parents say their children had meaningful input into the decision to buy the last family vehicle, especially their kids around Nathan’s age: 6-8 years old.

Chevrolet:  “Chevy Runs Deep”

This one just looks like a car ad.  It’s really part of a political campaign to justify the bailouts and delegitimize further industry safety and other regulation.  And if you are old enough to remember Reagan’s similar “Morning in America” ads, you’ll recognize stroking people’s sense of national self-worth as a tried-and-true sales technique. Combining wistful nostalgia for the country’s economic glories of the past and bright-eyed optimism for its eco-friendly techno-future, this Chevrolet ad reminds us that our past, present, and future all depend on a healthy US auto industry, even if the cost in dollars and lives seems high.

Our independent spirit makes most Americans reluctant to believe that we are susceptible to the persuasion of advertising.  And while we may not be immediately swayed by any one maker’s single pitch to run out and buy a particular model, the marketing formula works, over the long run, to feed a culture based on owning and driving cars.  A dollop of family love, a dash of freedom, a heap of faith in progress and America:  it’s the well-tested recipe that keeps the American car buyer coming back for more.

  • Hey, it’s the part of The American Dream, isn’t it? And it’s our patriotic duty to spend our money in support of American Corporations. Don’t they teach that in schools any more?

  • Mark Walker

    The influence of car ads cannot be overstated. I watch only 90 minutes of television a day — the 10 o’clock news and a sitcom before bedtime — yet the sheer number (and repetitiveness!) of car ads is a powerful vortex that I feel almost powerless to resist. People who spend an entire evening in front of the telly are effectively lobotomized. The car industry’s well funded propaganda arm is possibly the biggest hurdle for the livable streets movement. We badly need to find ways to counter it and loosen its control over public eyes, ears, hearts, minds, and souls.

  • Do you really have hope? We can’t do anything about this. The beast is out and there is no way to tame it and bring it back in. This is what majority of people want, since the society IS lobotomized by advertising. People like us, frequenting blogs like this, who see and understand the problem are tiny minority crying to each other, but no one else listens. Nobody else thinks there is a problem, why change?

    The only way this will change is if gas prices skyrocket for good. But our politicians will rather start drilling in Alaska national parks than look for alternatives because most of them are too scared, too greedy and too stupid to stand up against the corporate interests of the oil and energy industry.

  • Jonathan

    Mark, I owned a car and it wasn’t all that the ads crack it up to be. Nowadays when I see auto ads I think of the stressed-out faces of the drivers I see on the streets. All the advertising is necessary to counterbalance the conclusion that automobiling isn’t very much fun, gauging from the expressions of those who are doing it.

  • fdr

    The auto industry tries to sell cars, so they advertise. Why is that a surprise? I’m more annoyed by the constant Viagra and Cialis commercials on the nightly news.

  • @fdr: everybody advertises their products and everybody makes stuff up to some degree, but if someone takes Viagra in the privacy of his home it doesn’t affect society that much. The Car is a real problem. Individual car transportation is not sustainable in most cities, we’re reaching critical mass, it damages the environment and there is only so much space for the cars. Cars kill more people than diseases as well. Yet our society has a car fetish and it’s helpless without a car. Most people in cities travel only few miles, they drive walkable distances. This is just plain insane and it will need to end or our cities will become unlivable. These ads are reinforcing the idea that a car is good and needed for a family, they encourage dangerous and antisocial behavior like speeding.

  • a man who lives in the real world

    This post is especially idiotic, even by Streetsblogs standards. The auto industry is an huge part of the economy and employs hundreds of thousands of people nationwide, and of course they’re going to advertise. And I have a wake up call for you all…Americans are going to keep on driving, for a long, long time. So are New Yorkers (many more of whom own cars than you or your statistics want to admit).

    The plain truth is that most Americans, including many New Yorkers (try leaving Park Slope once in a while) and most urban dwellers live in areas that either aren’t served by public transit at all or are poorly served. Try living having kids and living in South Brooklyn and getting around without a car. Your self righteous carping about an “evil car culture” only hurts the livable streets movement. You should be advocating for more equitable tax policies that encourage more environmentally friendly cars and an investment in transit infrastrucutre, not this silly, elitist and culturally insensitive crap.

    Not everybody can live in Park Slope, belong to the co-op, bike everywhere and generally levitate above the planet. Some of us live in the real world And have cars.

  • Any funding available for a well-produced, witty campaign about walking, wheeling or busing to work?

    Are there any cultural memes that would allow such a campaign to take hold?

  • Maybe when the country is in so much debt that they have nothing left but their cars to eat they’ll wake up. But probably not…

  • @a man who lives in the real world

    I live in very real world. A lot of people I know live in the same, very, very real world. We bike to work, we do errands by bikes, many take their kids to school by bikes. A lot of us own cars as well, I own a car, for those weekend getaways. What you fail to understand is that majority of people drive short distances that can be served by bicycle or even walking which would improve everybody’s quality of life. That’s the evil part. It’s one thing to own a car and use it responsibly, it’s another to drive that thing everywhere just because you can.

  • Eric Panzer

    I always forget that Copenhagen, Shanghai, San Francisco, New York, Tokyo, Portland, Paris, Venice, Boston, Hong Kong, and Chicago are just a few of the cities that don’t operate in the real world. In fact, prior to the invention of the automobile, none of the world was real because we hadn’t yet designed our societies and culture around automobility.

    I do agree that it doesn’t make sense to fault people for using cars when they have little to no other choice–as is the case in much of the US. Nevertheless, some people who do have transit alternatives are lured away from them by this sort of message. It’s not elitist to criticize corporately-contrived, consumptive cultural trends that questionably equate driving and car ownership with freedom, family values, and control–this to the detriment of our environment, pocketbooks, mass transit, and public spaces. Just because a sentiment is popular doesn’t make questioning it’s validity elitist.

    Arguing that we should continue doing something just because it employs people is ludicrous. Should we have protected typewriter factories? Shall we end our energy efficiency efforts because it leads to a decreased demand for coal miners?

  • Jay

    I love Amtrak commercials. They’re well produced, and they’re about the only counterbalance out there.

    I wish bicycle companies did a little television advertising. It might make some real difference.

  • lolcat

    This post could be made by any advocacy blog about their “enemies” advertising.

    Way to scrape the bottom of the barrel streetsblog. This post does nothing but make you look like a bunch of left wing lunatics (which I certainly don’t want because I value this blog.)

  • “Cars kill more people than diseases as well.”

    IIRC about 35K annually in the US, whereas, as one example, cigarettes take some 440K.

    Well, when your mssters are into DEpopulation schemes, both ‘left’ and ‘right’ become facades for elistism.

  • noah

    This post reminds me of Nicholas Fehn character on SNL, the guy who reads the news on Weekend Update played by Fred Armisen.

    http://www.hulu.com/watch/107506/saturday-night-live-update-nicholas-fehn

  • Sean H

    Don’t forget the George Washington ‘Freedom’ commercials…

    I really like the CSX freight train commercials. 1 ton, 432 miles, 1 gallon of gas +trucks off the road.

  • Bob Davis

    For people like me (and most of the folks who read this blog) car commercials are more entertaining than informative. I wonder how many viewers actually get sucked in by the commercials; one doesn’t need to be a transportation expert to know that the wide open roads through beautiful scenery represent less than 0.001% of actual miles driven. I’m amused by the radio commercials for luxury cars that I hear when out running errands: e.g. “Find the Mercedes of your dreams at Gemutlicht Motors!” I have never dreamed of a Benz, a BMW, a Caddy or a Lexus. My 2001 Honda gets around just fine; I buy a car for transportation, not to admire wood trim or “leather appointed” seats. I don’t buy one to generate envy among neighbors or other drivers. And how much good does “race-inspired engineering” do when you’re trying to park the car or are stuck behind a 1985 station wagon or an 18-wheeler on the freeway? Whenever I can, I ride the local Light-Rail line and laugh up my sleeve at the rush-hour traffic slowing as the train speeds up. (unfortunately, bus service in our area is marginal, so I usually drive to the railway terminal). Bicycles are great for the young and resilient, but when even the Mayor of Los Angeles gets hurt riding a bike, I’m not ready to risk my creaky old bones, even though the exercise would be good.

  • Sean, do you mean the Norfolk Southern commercial, with the “You don’t need me” song?

  • Clarence Eckerson Jr.

    Thanks so much for this article. As many may know in my crazy-busy schedule I would love to write more film/commercial criticisms, but so happy someone was able to do it. Let’s see more, more often!

  • maaaty

    Yeah, the George Washington-fighting-the-Revolutionary-War in a Dodge Charger commercial was absolutely tops. “America got two things right: freedom and cars.”

    To the man living in the real world … I won’t take the bait. That has to be a joke post.

    I don’t watch TV any longer, save for the rare sports event. I am still amazed at how many ads there are for cars. I guess that seeing car ad after car ad is enough to create a “real world” construct for some.

  • Yet another great reason not to watch commercial television. I stopped years ago precisely because I couldn’t stomach the advertising. (I’ll wait and watch my favorite shows when their season comes out on DVD. Yes, I know there’s TIVO, etc.) Every once in a while I’ll watch a sports game with my husband but I sure I’m less than congenial company because I howl every two minutes about the poor values and insidious brainwashing of the ads. You can imagine my reaction to George Washington in an SUV running down Redcoats.

    I wonder about the correlation between the under 30 crowd not rushing out to buy cars and the under 30 crowd getting less and less of their entertainment/media/news from traditional sources, including commercial television . . .

  • Good to know there are others who dumped the TV. I can’t stand advertising in any form either. It’s too over-the-top and there is too much of it. There is too much of everything anyway. I learned to filter ads from my life like noise. I watch TV series either on DVDs or streaming from Netflix. I can wait, I don’t need to see the latest right away. Subtle, properly targeted ads on the iinternet are OK, you can skip them, you can block them, they’re sometimes even useful. But mass media advertising is totally out of control.

  • DC

    What I always find funny about car ads are the ones that show the cars driving down dense urban centers with NO other cars in the road at all. LOL yeah good luck with that in reality.

  • Noah-

    Your example is an excellent representation of the elite’s fear of the truth, so lets distract the more narcassistic types that can’t get beyond a person’s clothes.

  • Mitchell

    “Are there any cultural memes that would allow such a campaign to take hold?”

    For bikes & buses? Buzzing gnats and lumbering fart-boxes, respectively!

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