How Ad Dollars Help Explain the Media’s Bike Backlash

The media loves drama, of course. As your high school English teacher explained it, if Hamlet doesn’t get pissed about his dad’s murder or if Atticus Finch doesn’t step up to defend a black man falsely accused — that is, if somebody doesn’t say no, you’ve got no story. So the vociferous opposition of a handful of people to a handful of bike lane projects in New York City has been dramatized, through a series of news stories and op-eds, into a full-blown citizens’ backlash against the complete streets movement.

The narrative potential of controversy, though, cannot fully explain the glaring disconnect between polls showing that most residents support bike lanes and press portrayals of the backlash as widespread. Advocate Aaron Naparstek, who knows more about the city’s transportation politics than most anyone, has posited one theory: that Bloomberg’s DOT Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan, the woman behind many of the positive changes to New York City streets in recent years, has infuriated members of the political class — powerful New Yorkers who, unlike most, rely on cars as transportation.

Graphic: ##http://online.wsj.com/article/SB121805673763218089.html?mod=todays_us_nonsub_marketplace##Wall Street Journal##

But as always, it also makes sense to follow the money. In 2010 alone, the automotive sector spent $13 billion on advertising, more than any other industry including telecom, and accounting for one out of every ten dollars doled out by advertisers in the U.S. Local media outlets are especially dependent on auto manufacturers and dealers for advertising revenue. At the same time, traditional news media continue to lose audience, and even while other types of media benefit from a rebound in ad spending, newspapers suffer persistent drops in ad revenues, plunging last year to a quarter-century low.

It’s hard not to notice that as papers like the New York Times have shrunk, cutting costs by shedding sections, plump Automotive sections hang tight and become even more critical to newspaper survival. Now, of course, this doesn’t necessarily mean that the Times, the New York Post, or other papers act unethically in how they cover transportation issues, including bike lane brouhahas.

But across the country, those on the automotive beat have cozy relationships with the automakers, driving their loaner cars to lunches with industry spokespeople, and stories occasionally surface, like a recent one in which editors at The Detroit News caved to dealer pressure to more favorably review the new Chrysler 200 sedan, that hint at broader behind-the-scenes activity.

Most auto journalists take great care to avoid being stained by industry sway, as difficult as that must be. Still, it is naive to think that the media’s dependence on the auto industry doesn’t influence what stories are covered, what opinion pieces are published, and what necessary “balance” might be taken. The tone adopted by local New York City news outlets has hardly been one of hard objectivity.

Now national media outlets have picked up the bike lane story, tucking it inside the parallel narrative of a trumped-up “war on cars”. In this weekend’s Wall Street Journal, humorist P.J. O’Rourke, who often waxes nostalgic about the masculinity of the lost muscle car culture, derides cyclists as antiquated relics relying on a dead technology, as silly children playing in the streets who somehow represent an existential threat to “innocent motorists” in two-ton vehicles, and, of course, as pawns in an Orwellian plot by the Department of Transportation to enslave us all. O’Rourke and Wall Street Journal prefer that most Americans are instead enslaved by auto lenders.

O’Rourke’s piece cannot be seen as a simple appeal to libertarian readers of the conservative paper of record; it must also be seen as desperate bid to retain the love of the automakers, who keep the wheels of the presses rolling, and who are appropriately frightened of the prospect of a transportation system that gives more people more choices in getting around.

The problem for the media is that bike manufacturers don’t spend a whole lot on advertising. Bikes just don’t cost that much, and buyers don’t tend to take out loans to finance their purchase — because they don’t have to. We can imagine, though, that if they did, there’d be a lot more stories extolling the manly glories of the bike and railing against the socialist agenda of free public parking.

Anne Lutz Fernandez, a former marketer and banker, and Catherine Lutz, an anthropologist at the Watson Institute at Brown University, are the authors of Carjacked: The Culture of the Automobile and its Effect on our Lives (Palgrave Macmillan).

  • Cberthet

    I wonder what $ and % of add revenues NYTimes and CBS derive from Automobile and Oil companies? And maybe , just maybe, this PPW lawsuit is funded by such .

  • J:Lai

    I understand its a slow news day, but this some seriously lazy reportng.
    It is VERY dubious that any auto industry advertiser is leveraging ad buys to control the editorial content of media regarding bikes or bike lanes.
    The number of people who might substitute a bicycle for a car is tiny. I very much doubt this issue is even on the radar of any car company. This is an industry with a lot of serious challenges in its immediate future. Bicycles are surely not on the list.

    Maybe I’m wrong, but it would be nice to see a single piece of evidence, or even a suggestion of evidence, if you’re going to run this story. I think articles like this serve only to perpetuate a victim mentality among bikers which is unnecessary and counterproductive.

  • Crusty

    I don’t know if the PPW lawsuit is explicitly funded by the auto and oil industries. The individuals involved seem to have sufficient funds to pay for what we’ve seen so far.

    Even without saying anything, the auto and oil industries might be biasing reporting. The Time’s reporting seems less overt lies than funky editing.

  • NattyB

    What’s lazy?

    They’re not making a direct causal relationship. They’re presenting the structural forces.

    Newspapers are desperate for cash. If they don’t get page views and readers, they lose their jobs. If automobiles provide over a quarter of their advertising revenue, then, that will effect coverage. It doesn’t need to be overt. Nor even an overt agreement. This is how structural forces work.

  • Anonymous

    Easily a third of this past Sunday’s LA Times newsprint was the car-addiction sections.

  • Suzanne

    I personally don’t think it’s *all* the auto industry, just as I don’t think the oil companies made Bush go to war in Iraq. Looking at the rhetoric (“biking is an anti-American, communist plot by the UN to take away our freedomz*”) there’s something about bike lanes that hard right ideologues hate. Is it bicycling’s connections with environmentalism, especially it’s acknowledgment that global warming is actually happening? The fact that it represents to many minds a European social consciousness? These are two memes that keep popping up in anti-bike rhetoric.

    Bike lanes, like evolution and global climate change, appears to represent the culture war between the political forces represented by the Tea Party on the one hand and everyone from Obama supporters to those on the left on the other.

    On the other hand I don’t doubt they and their lobbyists put pressure on the media, even if it’s just that the editors don’t want to piss them off the golden cow.

    * Republican Dan Maes and his crazy ass ideas that bike share = communist UN plot:
    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/08/04/dan-maes-colorado-guberna_n_670479.html

  • Tsuyoshi

    Another aspect would simply be their audience. The people who read newspapers (especially English language newspapers) are, I suspect, more likely to drive cars than the population as a whole.

  • J:Lai

    I do not agree that this is presenting “structural forces”. It is presenting a graphic about ad revenues and an implied “you connect the dots” to readers … that is lazy and not really up to the standards of most streetsblog reporting.

    There are far more likely structural forces, namely that many of the reporters from these papers are drivers and get parking placards or priveleges, i.e. the “windshield perspective”.
    There are also more direct and more likely economic forces, namely that stories about biking and bike lanes get attention, which can be directly monetized in the form of page views.

    While it is possible that hard right ideologues hate bike lanes (the most entrenched opposition so far seems to come from the “soft left” aka New York City democratic politicians) car companies are not run by ideologues. They are run by mostly non-ideological profit maximizers.

    If anyone thinks they can find factual evidence that car companies, or even local dealerships, are directly influencing editorial content in the local news media via advertising revenues, I will be happy to take the other side of that wager.

  • At one point, just GM’s US advertising budget was larger than the entire US bike industry. Yet I’d wager that the bike industry has a much larger multiplier effect — that it creates more jobs per dollar spent than the auto/oil/tire industrial complex.

    In the early and mid-20th century, metropolitan newspapers (and their largely suburban, professional readers, who were then more likely to own cars than the urban working class) played a big role in the local political successes of “motordom.” It’s not surprising that the same biases would still hold in newsrooms today.

  • At one point, just GM’s US advertising budget was larger than the entire US bike industry. Yet I’d wager that the bike industry has a much larger multiplier effect — that it creates more jobs per dollar spent than the auto/oil/tire industrial complex.

    In the early and mid-20th century, metropolitan newspapers (and their largely suburban, professional readers, who were then more likely to own cars than the urban working class) played a big role in the local political successes of “motordom.” It’s not surprising that the same biases would still hold in newsrooms today.

  • Are you kiddin’ me? NYC is looking to make money from the new bike share system, and it will be possible to have advertising paying for the program (and I know they were open to advertising on the bikes themselves).

    Bikes-for-ads is not free, as everyone who buys advertised products pays extra for them due to communication costs for that product. This becomes an even bigger problem when only some of the people who buy these products get to use the bikes, because of where they live or work.

    Further, a huge amount of advertising is for cars themselves, or often other unsustainable products.

    You can draw your own conclusions:

  • “In fact, there is no plausible scenario for complete energy independencplants and oil production and delivery.”e in 10 years, since that would mean replacing oil in most of our transportation system, which is built around a massive, multi-trillion dollar infrastructure of vehicle manufacturing

    — Joe Romm classic first feasibility statement (aka It is impossible means it is possible!)
    http://climateprogress.org/2011/01/23/obama-climate-change-global-warming-state-of-the-union-address/

  • Mr Bad example

    This has been true for years–it’s why people talking about the potential peak of oil production don’t get stories placed in newspapers or on television. Back when I was still reading it, Newsday had a 100+ page ‘Auto enthusiast supplement’ every Friday and (not coincidentally) they didn’t think Global warming was a big deal and we have plenty of oil. And I’ll guess that all those classified ads in newspapers aren’t factored into the $13 B figure.

    And since you can’t live in suburbia without a car, the total chunk of the car-dependent economy may well be two times that $13 B. Escalating gas prices are helping to destroy the home value of much of suburbia. And not coincidentally, that’s making a lot of people hostile to the plan B embodied in bicycles. I have had co-workers absolutely apoplectic about cyclists, and these folks are totally dependent on their cars.

  • a.

    Remember, Gibson Dunn is handling the suit pro bono, so the wealthy individuals involved don’t even have to shell out.
    Gibson Dunn, of course, represents Chevron in an ongoing environmental fiasco in Ecuador, and represented carmakers in Mass v. EPA…

  • Have you ever shared a company with advertising salespeople, J:Lai? It is their job to close deals, however they can. (And we love them for it.) If a company’s business is editorial, then editors are required not to spoil ad sales’ game. It starts innocently enough, “Please don’t run this racy story on the same day that prudish corporation XYZ’s ads are booked!” But if things get desperate, more serious ethical boundaries are challenged, perhaps breached. It makes no difference if the pressure comes from the client company or any one of the numerous middlemen whose job it is to do that for them. I can not imagine that auto ad agencies–whose mainstay is the image of an SUV barreling down deserted urban streets–have no opinion on coverage of the recent livable streets improvements that quite literally enter into their shot, undermining their id-feeding spectacle of an individual conquering his environment with the help of powerful machinery.

    Maybe the extent of the nytimes.com auto-ad sales team’s influence is that improbable, permanent “AUTOS” tab halfway down their front page. Or not. Evidence is tough to come by because no one wants to be fired from the last paying jobs in print publishing. There is perhaps some evidence, if you’re really curious, in the referenced “Carjacked: The Culture of the Automobile and its Effect on our Lives”. (This can’t be lazy reporting, it’s synergistic book plugging!) But if you have any evidence of false claims in the post here, lets hear that. I read it as simply an invitation to think about a side of capitalism that many people find it more comfortable to ignore.

  • Disclosure: I’m a former advertising management employee at the New York Post. I was not responsible for automotive advertising but I worked with those who were. I was also low enough on the food chain that I wasn’t privy to conversations that might have taken place between the top dogs in advertising and the newsroom, so my comment below is based purely on my experience and observations rather than on documentable facts.

    That said, I must vehemently disagree with the premise that newspaper coverage in general, and at the Post in my experience, is amenable to pressure from advertisers. Yes, I know there are exceptions (hello, Detroit News), but they have made the news exactly because they are exceptions, not because that kind of behavior is routine.

    All the journalists and editors I know detest the very idea that they should adjust their coverage to advertiser needs, and most self-respecting journalists will gleefully call out their own organizations very publicly if they get wind of any such thing going on. It’s the quickest way for a newspaper to blow its credibility with its readers, and journalists want no part of it. Most would be insulted at the suggestion.

    That is not to say that there isn’t pressure on newsrooms from advertisers; this happens all the time, from all kinds of advertisers. (Realtors, for example, don’t appreciate articles telling people how to sell their homes without the help of a Realtor. Restaurants and Broadway shows hate bad reviews.) Sometimes a group of advertisers will go so far as to boycott a publication over coverage. In almost every case the publication sucks it up and figures out how to carry on without that revenue rather than alter its coverage.

    So I really think the premise of this argument displays the writers’ ignorance of the industry they’re writing about rather than any nefarious dealings within it.

    As to the New York Post in particular, I will say that in my observation (again, not scientific) a luxury car service was a much-accessed perk for newsroom management, and the daily adventures of commuting by other means was not something with which they had a lot of experience. I would be much more comfortable crediting the windshield perspective in the paper’s coverage of this issue to their staff’s significant lifestyle bias than I would to external pressure. In this case, that pressure probably isn’t even necessary.

  • Steve Stollman

    While there is an obvious self-interest in promoting cars that advertise vs. bikes that don’t, even more toxic is the prejudice in favor of advertising in all forms, such as that supporting bike-share, no matter how inappropriate or destructive to the final results these ads might be. This comes with an unwillingness or inability to be critical of a world in which the only way to get enough money to promote any beneficial activity is going to be through corporate largesse, especially now that the non-profit sector, and government money for important environmental initiatives are shrinking into invisibility.

    Ad-supported media can say nothing bad about any form of advertising, their mother’s milk. When the billboard industry converted itself into the “street-furniture” business, of which bike-share is an element, no major media has been able to say one word about the wisdom of allowing, say the world’s major polluters like Rio Tinto, who supports the Bixi system, to use this program to “greenwash” their mining operations and human rights problems.

    This article sheds light on a key issue, which has gotten almost no attention, the permanent tilt in favor of heavy consumption by the purveyors of that lifestyle. It was the habit of cigarette companies to advertise everywhere as one means to keep too many articles being published that were critical of their products. The car companies know that they are creating a world of hazard and harm so they do what they must to soften the blow and they do not have to be explicit in their demands, every reporter and editor knows the deal. There are more press at the car show than any other event in the nation, and damn few of them arrive there on a bike.

    Remember that tax revenues are a percentage of economic activity. Bikes don’t generate much in the way of expense, so they have been considered a factor undermining the economy not helping it. When economic growth is all that matters, intelligent shrinkage is considered subversive and those demanding less consumption are herded into pens and arrested for disobedience. Leave it to the “humorists” at the WSJ to make the point so it loses some of its grim reality and don’t expect anybody to leave their self-interest at the door when they enter their mirrored fun-house..

  • Indeed. Uranium. Rio Tinto mines uranium. Rio Tinto’s daughter Rio Tinto Alcan provided some of the first funding to Bixi/Public Bike System in Montreal http://www.reuters.com/article/2008/10/28/idUS212816+28-Oct-2008+PRN20081028, and while I am not sure of its current system-wide support, I do know they currently sponsor the safety page of Montreal Bixi http://montreal.bixi.com/le-guide-de-conduite-bixi. The bikes are used in Barclays Cycle Hire in London, which is operated by Serco, a company that also manages the UK’s nuclear deterrent. And of course Barclays finances arms manufacturers, though not sure about nukes.

  • Anonymous

    Yes, but what about the “Bike Lane Lobby” we’ve heard so much about?? A sinister cabal headed by George Soros, Hugo Chavez and the corporations who make the dude-riding-a-bike shaped lane markings, who stand to gain literally billions in profits by installing protected bike lanes in major American cities, ruining everything for future generations?

    But seriously, I have worked in television for many years, and I started my career at one of our local TV news channels. While there may not be a strict conspiracy, it is fair to say that local TV news editorial decisions are mainly based on instantaneous ratings relative to competing broadcasts (which set the dollar value of the ads), and everyone in an organization like that knows which side their bread is buttered on. You’ll notice a lot of strange “news” pieces that cross promote other franchises owned by the same network or parent company, for example. Regional automotive ads make up a huge percentage of local broadcasting ad sales, and I don’t think it is unreasonable to suspect that they would shy away from being perceived as “anti-car.” GM isn’t going to call them with a complaint about a bike lane story, but the ad sales guys are going to put together sales presentations showing how attractive their media buys are for each category like automotive, food, etc.. You shouldn’t be completely cynical about it, but it is a somewhat cynical business.

  • Larry Littlefield

    As for the whoring of media, everyone has gotten a lot more desperate in the past few years. It isn’t just the Post. PBS has been running, ahem, commercials for big oil lately to stay aflot. That must have been quite hard for them to swallow.

  • “Media” is a plural word, so the first sentence should start: “The media love drama…”

  • tjsf

    Nice try. But why is Cadillac the primary media buyer for the US coverage of the Tour de France?

  • I like to watch it, but the TdF has little or nothing to do with “normal, boring cycling”. Skoda Auto (owned by VW) is a main sponsor on the European side. There is some personal and cultural crossover between the Tour and normal city cycling, but this yearly event is really mainly about sports and corporate branding pushing, and performance-enhancing drugs.

    So the little bit of actual nice universal things about cycling promotion that comes through to “American” TV screens is clearly branded by Cadillac either for greenwash or just to seem Euro-cool or – as my grandpa used to say – “really just f-ckin whatever.”

  • Finally, in weeding through these comments, I saw a reference to the “windshield factor.” That has been far more important over time in terms of news coverage and legislative decisions than what goes on in the auto advertorial ghetto. Transportation discussions at the policy level are usually made by people who drive to the meetings and reported on by reporters who drive to those meetings. This was true by the 1930’s.

  • Elaine, I would like to see even the sketchiest of data to support the theory that autos barreling down deserted urban streets is the deciding factor in determining whether large numbers of people are going to buy cars–do you happen to have that? Because, I see that scene in almost every stupid auto commercial. Perhaps the auto ad agencies are just having a laugh, donating hundreds of millions of dollars to television networks and closing streets for fun. Or perhaps it is hard to guess what will influence people, and it is often not what we would like to believe.

    I’m not sure what to make of the implication that it is more ethical (or merely acceptable?) to be biased because of your perks than because of advertisers. It’s advertisers who pay for those perks anyway, and the damage done by the bias is the same regardless of its source. In truth, my best guess for the cause of the Post’s jacked-up anti-cycling bias of the past few months is NBBL’s use of a public relations firm to pitch stories. And that’s as vile as anything else.

    But there is no basis to rule out auto advertisers as having an influence on livable streets coverage. They are striving mightily to project onto ‘consumers’ their fairly ridiculous story of what cars are good for (zooming down empty city streets), and we are working to establish something very visible and oppositional in the real world. The newspapers are going out of business. With big accounts like auto companies, you are talking about immediate consequences for people’s salaries and even jobs. If even a few reporters at a paper fail to live up to the selfless ideal of journalism, that’s enough to skew the coverage (and probably get them promoted).

  • Nathan — No, I don’t have that data, but I’m sure the auto manufacturers and their agencies do; you might ask them. The details of aspirational advertising is not the topic of discussion here but yes, essentially, what you describe is exactly what’s going on. They wouldn’t do it if it didn’t work, or at least work better than anything else.

    Also, I make no relative judgement about the ethics of coverage being influenced by perks vs. where your paycheck comes from, or whether and to what extent a PR firm can sway you. But I will note without excusing it that lifestyle bias is subconscious and rarely even recognized, as opposed to the deliberate act of making decisions about how and what to cover. My point is that the source of reporters’ paychecks is very seldom an animating force in their coverage. What gets them out of bed in the morning is the idea that one day they might be able to work on a story that will topple a president (something that has not been good for journalism, IMHO, but that’s a different conversation). Go spend some time with any of them and ask them. Believe me, if their paychecks were the issue they’d all have been investment bankers; no one gets rich working in a newsroom.

    Yep, newspapers are dying and a lot of jobs have gone away. Yep, newspapers have lost a lot of automotive advertising. But that’s not anywhere near the full extent of the problem. If newspapers’ changing their coverage is all it would take to fix their woes I’d be a lot more sympathetic to your argument, but the problem is far worse than that and everybody knows it. Even the reporters. So until you’ve gone and hung out with a couple reporters and actually asked them whether they weigh their coverage based on its effect on advertisers, I’m sorry but I’m still not buying your premise.

  • Uh, that’s not because Cadillac and GM are big enviros that support cycling. Cadillac’s market agency looked at the demographics of the people watching the TdF and concluded that it is a sport enjoyed by white collar people in the US. Have you ever seen the parking lot at a road race or a triathlon? Not many ’87 Honda Civics.
    Saab and Audi also go after the bike racing demographic.

  • Anonymous

    It’s time to start treating car ads the way we treat other ads for products that may harm or kill: like alcohol, tobacco, and firearms, cars may have a place in society but we need to be much more careful about how we promote them. For every children’s cartoon that presents a smiley-faced chrome bumper, we have a thousand examples of people maimed and lives ruined forever by the car. For every car ad that boasts of how fast you can get your SUV to the corner to buy a capuccino, we have a thousand trees cut for pulp paper. We need to revisit what car advertising we allow, and where we allow it, as a society. Big tobacco protested mightily when cigarette advertising started being controlled, but they got over it. Car companies will have to do the same.

  • amen!

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