Looking for the Fulfillment That Car Ads Promise? You Won’t Get It From Driving.

Image:  Green Lane Project
Image: Green Lane Project

If you tuned into the Super Bowl last night, you witnessed the full force of the automotive industry’s marketing power.

For upwards of $5 million per 30 seconds of air time, car companies told us how their products won’t just carry us around, but will satisfy deep, spiritual needs. They said cars let us commune with nature, give men eternal youth, and make us more generous and public-spirited, as demonstrated by that Ram Trucks ad obscenely dubbed to portions of Dr. Martin Luther King’s “Drum Major Instinct” sermon.

Is there any yearning that can’t be satisfied by dropping $45,000 on a Ford Expedition?

The pitches have to register on an emotional level to hide the fact that, as Dan Savage wrote a few years ago, “Driving is just sitting on your ass.” So they show us breathtaking views of mountain ranges, not the everyday experience of sitting in traffic, listening to other people in cars honk their horns.

Getting around under the power of your own body and spirit can be a different thing entirely. In a recent essay in the New York Times, Elaisha Stokes wrote about how getting around NYC on a bicycle helped her find strength to keep going through a tough divorce.

The piece resonated with Addison Wilhite at the Reno Rambler, who describes the experience of biking through an emotional crisis:

On a bike, alone, you are forced to be in your own head which has served me well whether deliberating over something in my life that is causing emotional angst, or in thinking about what I might do in my classroom on a given day. I’ve often said some of my best teaching ideas have come to me via the inspiration of the wind in my face, and the exertion’s effects on my mind, while commuting to work. Being nimble and spontaneous enough to be open to those inspirations has been a key to my professional success.

There is also a dark side to the forced seclusion of riding a bike alone when dealing with some sort of emotional turmoil. I remember clearly about 16 years ago going through serious emotional pain at the same time that I had signed up and was training for the Death Ride. The amount of hours you have to put in to train for such an event insured many solo rides and many miles. And virtually every time I got on the bike my mind always seemed to go back and fixate on the root cause of my emotional angst. I believe in confronting issues but sometimes the psychological toll of so many hours of obsessing over the problem was not healthy. A group, or social ride, would have been a good release from this obsessive suffering, yet it can be pretty difficult to find someone willing to engage in the sufferfest of 4 or five hours up and down mountains. In hindsight, the obvious solution would have been to not do the Death Ride and thus avoid the pain. But it was a point of pride and physical challenge that perhaps I needed to put myself through to emerge on the other side, hopefully as a better, more empathetic, caring person.

You probably couldn’t make a commercial out of that experience. But how many people can say their SUV made them a more empathetic person?

More recommended reading today: Human Transit says Uber’s latest financial loss is further proof that ride-hailing apps haven’t fundamentally altered the economics of urban transportation. And Slate reports that self-driving cars still aren’t good at detecting cyclists.

  • Yeah. “True Car Ads” would be an amazing project. OR even a contest!!!

  • Jeff

    Seriously though this would make an amazing Streetfilm.

  • Well if someone wants to make some short scripts and organize it….LOL!

  • Jesse

    https://youtu.be/RWPebA5dVIM

    Anyone notice this ad where the pedestrian is treated as an obstacle the driver is entitled to “overcome” and his mortal terror is played for laughs? It’s an unintentionally cogent indictment of city streets designed for cars and a culture of motorist hostility. With a different audio track it would be satire. As it stands now it’s just offensive.

  • Jeff

    I think about this more than I’d like to admit when I’m spacing out doing laps in Central Park.

    One recurring idea I come back to is the SUV with Automatic Honk-Swerve-Plow: Similar to these new automated parallel parking systems, with the touch of a single button the vehicle will automatically honk the horn, violently swerve around another vehicle waiting to make a turn, and plow through the intersection. In the commercial, a mother will be shown looking back and smiling reassuringly at her child buckled up in a car seat as she engages Auto-HSP.

    You know, a vehicle designed for the needs of real-world motorists!

  • AMH

    Wow. Hostile and offensive is right.

  • Walking NPR

    I fear that would give automakers an idea for their next great feature… 🙂

  • Walking NPR

    I’ve so long wanted to do this. I’m fascinated by the history of how automakers, et al, created this idea that sitting on your rear in a piece of equipment that requires a huge investment (and often debt), continued payments for gas, maintenance, and insurance for its lifespan, and huge government subsidies somehow equals freedom, independence, adulthood, masculinity. It’s got to be a feat of marketing (and shady dealings) at least on par with what tobacco did and it’s so ingrained in our society today. It would be a fun bit of countermarketing to create ads that show the reality of cars….or auto-style ads promoting biking and transit!

  • 1980Gardener

    I get what this article is saying – like most commercials last night, the product and the feelings it supposedly generates were highly exaggerated (e.g. the MassMutual commercial, Coke, etc.)

    However, driving can be fun, comfortable, and enjoyable, and those realities should be ignored. Driving won’t make you emphathetic, but it can improve your quality of life.

  • Vooch

    A great deal of Driver anger and hatred of other modes derives from the dissonance between the advertising promise of driving bliss and harsh reality of driving drudgery

  • Joe R.

    My “True Car Ad” would have the motorist sitting in traffic while being passed by bicycles. I would show money flying out of the driver’s pocket for normal car expenses. The commercial would end with pictures of an ER with collision victims and a cancer ward full of victims of air pollution.

  • davistrain

    I wonder how many people really believe motoring as shown by car ads? Many of us approach buying a vehicle with the same no-nonsense attitude of a transit district buying new buses. We are immune to the ads that subtly (and sometimes blatantly) use “snob appeal” to tout their products. Impressing neighbors and total strangers with a car that has “head-turning” body design is not for us. We realize that transit and bicycling are cheaper and give us more exercise, but we’re in a situation where non-automotive transport is not practical, so we’ll buy something that will “Git’er Done”, even though the “auto snobs” may scorn it as an “appliance car”.

  • Matt

    When you watch your next car ad, note the urban space it portrays. They never film in or around the parking garage dungeons and stroads that 80 years of auto-orientation has provided. They put their cars in the walkable places.

  • Larry Littlefield

    True — they love to film ads in the sort of environments people stopped building when everyone started driving, and not arterial roads with strip malls.

  • thielges

    Whether a person consciously believes the myth does not really matter
    because many of these ads target the subconscious. Yes, some people are
    strong willed and can filter what reaches their subconscious though
    most are not so introspective.
    I’ve had the opportunity to talk
    with one of the ad execs involved with a recent high rotation luxury
    car campaign. They and their client believe that their approach sells cars and are in
    it for the long run. The approach has been to associate their product with youthful sexual potency though this message is never explicitly spelled out.

  • Walking NPR
  • Right. Even if drivers realise that the world depicted by car ads is not the real world, the ads still resonate by showing what drivers perceive as an ideal, the way things would be if only those annoying pedestrians and bicyclists would get off the road.

    These ads collectively amount to a form of brainwashing, at first igniting and then enabling a dangerous sociopathy.

  • JamesR

    This piece feels a little bit like red meat for the readership. Of course urban driving on congested roads isn’t fulfilling. It’s rage-inducing and flat out dangerous, because a huge chunk of the driving-age population doesn’t have the mental wiring to handle piloting of a 3,500lb vehicle competently, and cars in cities are like bulls in a china shop. Car ads usually suck.
    But – if you’ve ever been on a drive in a sports car on a nice road away from a population center, it can be an incredible experience, and yes, fulfilling, and life-affirming, and invigorating in the same way that road cycling is. Again, I’m guessing this something largely outside of the experience of the Streetsblog readership, few of whom are gearheads.
    As an aside, most of the best driving roads are equally great cycling roads (“Fred Cycling”, as Vooch would say), and many of the places that suck for driving also suck for quality cycling.

  • Jeff

    I will never understand how being mechanically propelled around town in an upholstered air conditioned cocoon is “manly”, but facing the elements and powering my bicycle with my own sweat and muscles makes me less so.

  • Jason

    They’re all harking back to the motorist holy era of the very brief window between cars becoming generally affordable and there being too many cars on the road for cars to offer unfettered transportation freedom.

  • Comparing any driving to any cycling is a category error, simply because the car is being powered by a motor, not by one’s own muscles.

    Furthermore, even if some people consider driving fast to be fun, it is qualitatively a different kind of thrill to that of riding a bicycle. When driving a car one utilises the road as a tool while slashing one’s way through background scenery. Driving is an expression of brutal domination, by its nature an act of violence. By contrast, when riding a bicycle one communes with the road and immerses oneself in one’s surroundings. Cycling is a harmonious and sympathetic act, wherein the rider touches the universal forces.

    From a sensory standpoint these experiences are not only not the same, they are in fact polar opposites.

    …many of the places that suck for driving also suck for quality cycling.

    Manhattan stinks for driving; yet it is amongst the very best places to ride a bicycle.

  • Agree with you 100%! Sure, we love bikes and walking. We don’t see cars as necessary to urban sprawl. They contribute to congestion, pollution, depletion of resources, and are deadly dangerous in the wrong hands.

    That doesn’t mean that getting outside NYC on a good road in a car can’t be a fulfilling experience. I’ve driven cross-country 4 times and enjoyed every trip. Someone who doesn’t understand that also cannot understand part of why 17-20 million new light vehicles are sold in this country annually. Or that 1 in 13 Americans owe their livelihood to cars and trucks.

    Yeah, marketing makes people buy things they either don’t need or cannot afford. The auto manufacturers are probably amongst the worst offenders. But that doesn’t mean that the “thrill of the road” doesn’t exist for people. It does.

  • Walking NPR

    Right? It’s such a bizarre inversion. It’s kind of fascinating to think about how they did it.

  • Walking NPR

    That is jaw-dropping.

  • JamesR

    “Comparing any driving to any cycling is a category error, simply because the car is being powered by a motor, not by one’s own muscles.”

    I don’t follow. Both of these activities are, in essence, the piloting of a vehicle. Given the proliferation of e-bikes, this is not an either/or proposition. The form of propulsion is neither here nor there.

    “Furthermore, even if some people consider driving fast to be fun, it is qualitatively a different kind of thrill to that of riding a bicycle. When driving a car one utilises the road as a tool while slashing one’s way through background scenery.”

    Millions of people consider it to be fun in the right time and right environment. How would you classify motorcycling, then, as it lies somewhere midway between driving and cycling?
    You ever bomb down a hill at 40mph on a bicycle? Would you consider that to be a violent act?

    “Cycling is a harmonious and sympathetic act, wherein the rider touches the universal forces.”

    What does that even mean? Are the salmon I see out there every single day committing a sympathetic act?

    “Manhattan stinks for driving; yet it is amongst the very best places to ride a bicycle.”
    I was a commuter and road racer in around this city for over a decade and pretty much had to give it up due to the combination of having a kid and a few near-death experiences. The greenways are the only place I’ll ride now. Manhattan is simultaneously an amazing place to ride and a horrible place to ride, and this is highly variable depending on where in the island’s geography you happen to be, time of day, road conditions, etc.

  • djx

    “This piece feels a little bit like red meat for the readership. ”

    I agree. And it’s not even driving a sports car – even driving an OK regular car, on nice roads, not feeling in a hurry but just going somewhere, can be very enjoyable.

  • Joe R.

    For what it’s worth urban cycling on congested roads isn’t all that fulfilling, either. One thing bikes and cars have in common is that piloting them is most enjoyable when you rarely or never stop, and your speed isn’t limited by congestion.

    I agree driving fast on noncongested roads far away from cities can be an enjoyable experience. For example, I used to love when me and my brother visited my grandmother in Utica. He would drive the Thruway late nights or off-peak, often at 90 to 125 mph. I was just along for the ride but I totally understood how he enjoyed this kind of driving. Great fun other than getting out of the NY Metro area. The Streetsblog readership may not largely understand the joy of driving simply because for many their experience both driving motor vehicles and seeing them used is in the city. Driving in NYC sucks, to the point no sane person can tolerate doing it on a regular basis.

    Certainly many of the best driving roads are also the best cycling roads. They might be even better if bikes and motor vehicles were separated by a barrier. That said, parts of the outer boroughs late nights are nearly as good for cycling as the sticks, even if they’re still not all that great for driving. The only annoyances riding in the city late nights are potholes and traffic signals.

    As an aside, no matter how enjoyable driving may be in some parts of the country, the reality is that it’s hideously expensive for what it is, and also detrimental to the planet. I think one can get just about the same experience as driving if they pilot a velomobile on uncongested rural roads. Velomobiles are nearly as fast as cars on such roads, but a heck of a lot cheaper to operate. There are also no negative externalities.

  • Joe R.

    Not sure I understand how riding in a place with stop lights every 250′ can make for enjoyable cycling. I totally understand Manhattan has a lot more sights of interest than anywhere else, but the mechanics of riding there frankly suck.

  • Both of these activities are, in essence, the piloting of a vehicle. Given the proliferation of e-bikes, this is not an either/or proposition. The form of propulsion is neither here nor there.

    Oh, it’s “here” alright. The form of propulsion makes all the difference. Making the thing go with a motor is a fundamentally different matter from making the thing go with your body.

    Millions of people consider [driving] to be fun in the right time and right environment.

    Yes, I have noticed that. This is a sickness, a serious societal problem.

    How would you classify motorcycling, then, as it lies somewhere midway between driving and cycling?

    I would classify it as driving. Motorcycling not midway between driving and cycling; it is exactly the same as driving, and nothing like cycling.

    You ever bomb down a hill at 40mph on a bicycle? Would you consider that to be a violent act?

    I once hit 35 on a hill. It was a natural thing in that I was powered only by gravity and my body. This could have been pleasant in a remote location. But that kind of speed in a city environment is excessive; and, considering the diminished reaction time and the potential to injure pedestrians, one could make the argument that it borders on violence in that setting. I sure won’t be doing that again.

    “Cycling is a harmonious and sympathetic act, wherein the rider touches the universal forces.”

    What does that even mean?

    To me it means that a human is powering a machine solely with muscle power, and that the machine becomes an extension of the human’s body. Bicycling is just a natural as walking or running.

    Are the salmon I see out there every single day committing a sympathetic act?

    Please do not conflate two different things. There’s the physical act of bicycling, which is harmonious with the universe; and then there’s the question of appropriate behaviour in society.

    Can bicyclists behave badly? They certainly can. Every bicyclist who rides the wrong way or who blows red lights is behaving in a way that brings scorn onto bicyclists and hurts the efforts to normalise and to mainstream bicycling.

    I was a commuter and road racer in around this city for over a decade and pretty much had to give it up due to the combination of having a kid and a few near-death experiences. The greenways are the only place I’ll ride now. Manhattan is simultaneously an amazing place to ride and a horrible place to ride, and this is highly variable depending on where in the island’s geography you happen to be, time of day, road conditions, etc.

    I don’t have the capacity to race; I average 10 miles per hour. Still, that’s been enough to get me to Washington, and to and from Philadelphia on several occasions. I am a bike commuter and an avid recreational rider. I typically do 1000 miles in July; and I have hit 10,000 kilometres (6200 miles) for the year three times. I ride all year; but this month is the first time in seven years that I have taken a pause, as my tolerance for the cold is ebbing a bit.

    Manhattan is by far my favourite place to ride, particularly south of Central Park. I will admit that the greenways don’t really do it for me. Please understand that I am very glad that they are there; and will hit them on occasion. But they are too remote to really get the feel of the City. It’s the avenues that I like best. I enjoy going all around the four significant boroughs. But nothing beats grooving up and down the Manhattan avenues, being surrounded by the sights and sounds of my great City.

    I grew up in Queens; the first time I rode my bike into Manhattan was in 1981. (And I almost got killed on the Queenboro Bridge thanks to a negligent and incompetent cop, which is a separate story.) The comparison between Manhattan then and Manhattan now is almost impossible to express. On those first rides in 1981, I never would have imagined that Manhattan could be so great as is has become on account of our bike lanes. Bike lanes have not only improved every street that they are on, but they have had the aggregate effect of giving drivers a constant reminder that we bicyclists exist. This has noticably influenced drivers’ behaviour for the better.

    Say what you will about New York drivers’ deadly and sociopathic tendencies — and I say plenty about it — and also about the flaws in our bicycle infrastructure. But bike lanes have been an unalloyed good; they have transformed the heart of the City from a jungle to a bicycling wonderland, and have immeasurably improved bicyclists’ quality of life.

    Riding my bicycle on the avenues of Midtown Manhattan on a hot summer afternoon is literally the best thing that I know. It’s better than sex, better than pizza, better than the Beatles.

  • reasonableexplanation

    You know, I came to the comments section here ready to roll my eyes, but you folks have surprised me. You get it. Especially the thing with the best driving roads also being the best cycling roads.

    I’ll add another thing: driving fast on country roads is not the only part of driving to be pleasurable, in no particular order, it’s also quite fulfilling to:

    -Cruise on the FDR late at night, with minimal traffic or a nice flow watching the lights of the city, the bridges, Roosevelt Island Pass by.

    -Drive the streets of Manhattan at night or at the crack of dawn, enjoying how empty it is and how fast the neighborhoods change.

    -Go to a sleepy residential neighborhood on a sunny afternoon and just roll the car at idle speed, watching the pretty manicured houses slowly creep by.

    -Wear your comfy PJs and go for a drive when it’s snowing out, running out just quickly enough to get a 30sec rush of cool air as you head back home.

    When you drive to a new a place, you have a ‘home’ with you, where you can always keep a set of things for an impromtu picnic, or just lean the seat back and have a nap. Makes it real easy to go and explore a new city without carrying things on you or getting that ‘I’ve been on my feet all day’ feeling.

    I love cycling to new places too, but it’s a completely different feeling and experience overall.

  • Jeff

    I enjoy driving the same way I enjoy kayaking or playing video games: They’re nice leisure activities, but nothing to build a city around.

  • bettybarcode

    Oh, and how about the cliche of the car posed impishly in an environment that cars can’t access, like airlifted to the top of a Grand Canyon stone formation or nestled in a dense rainforest? Talk about invasive species. This naturalizing of the automobile is not benign.

  • Nancy Johnson

    This article assumes everyone lives in a big city with lots of traffic, and for people who live in the big city, that no one every drives out of the city. Out here in ol’ Californ ‘i ‘a we have the Pacific Coast Highway. And as anyone who has ever driven PCH from Los Angeles to San Francisco can tell you, it is one of the most exhilarating, beautiful drives in the entire world. Maybe you should try it some time Angie, it might change your life.

  • D G Spencer Ludgate

    The highway used in many car commercials…

  • spencer_e9876

    We are immune to the ads that subtly (and sometimes blatantly) use “snob appeal” to tout their products.

    Everybody thinks that about themselves, but if everyone was right, advertisers wouldn’t use that approach anymore.

  • thielges

    Better yet, take Amtrak’s Coast Starlight. The scenery is even more amazing, it takes about the same amount of time, and you don’t need to keep your eyes glued to the road.

  • Andrew

    Too bad you only suggested this today: https://www.amtrak.com/alert/pacific-parlour-car-retired

  • gneiss

    Instead of trying to drive it, Angie could do what I’ve done, which is ride it on a bicycle. Takes about 5 days, and was an exhilarating, engaging experience much better than the drive (which I’ve also done). If you really want to know the coast of California, get off your butt and propel yourself on a bike.

  • gneiss

    Amen.

  • 1976boy

    Right now, you can’t. It’s closed in sections due to landslides.

  • Walt

    Millions love motor sport like Nascar and Grand Prix

    Are they all wrong too?

  • Walt

    It’s no different from advertizing any other product. So why pick on cars? If anything buying a car is an emotional act, not like washig detergent, say

  • Chicagoan

    I’d much rather bike it.

  • Chicagoan

    I noticed this recently! Cadillac has their big, ugly cars cruising on cobblestone streets now. Interesting how things change.

  • kastigar

    I’ve ridden it! It’s a great route. A few years before the landslide closure. Camped along the way. Big Sur was great, It’s also called Cabillo Highway, or simple “PCH” by the locals.

  • Michel S

    I like how the streets are always completely empty. What are the chances you’d be the only car on the road in a dense urban environment? It’s pure fantasy.

  • Bernard Finucane

    Almost all car travel is routine daily trips. This would be less true if American cities weren’t so broken, and public transportation were available. But that’s just a pipe dream.

    So the best way to male the average car trip more enjoyable is to get people out of cars and into public transportation.

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