Should We Regulate Ads that Promote Dangerous Driving?

This Ford ad was banned in the U.K. last year. Image:  Ford/Youtube
This Ford ad was banned in the U.K. last year. Image: Ford/Youtube

How many times have you seen a car ad that shows — nay, glorifies — dangerous driving? Someone revving down a tiny road along a jagged cliff? Or speeding through a city — pedestrians, cars, other impediments somehow miraculously absent?

These ads are ubiquitous in America. But many other countries, including European nations, Canada, Singapore and Australia, ban them to protect public safety. Perhaps its time for the U.S., where traffic deaths are the leading cause of young people, to consider doing the same.

The U.S. auto industry spent $34.5 billion advertising in 2018 — the biggest ad buyer by far in the U.S. And we’re constantly being inundated with its messages — and internalizing them. It is a public safety problem, Canadian traffic safety expert Neil Arason in his 2014 book, “No Accident.”

“We know with little uncertainty that exposure to many types of risk-glorifying media, including television advertising and video gaming, increases risk-taking driving behaviors,” he writes.

Taking some action to limit or eliminate depictions of dangerous driving by auto companies would be a step in the right direction, says Arason. Some other countries guidelines are only voluntary.

But last year, for example, the U.K. banned car ads by Ford, Chrysler and Nissan for promoting dangerous driving. In one ad, for example, Ford had included lines from the Dylan Thomas poem, saying, “Do not go gentle into that good night. Old age should burn and rave at close of day. Rage. Rage against the dying of the light.”

The U.K.’s Advertising Standards Authority said the ad suggested “that driving was a way of releasing anger, which put the driver, other motorists and pedestrians at risk.” And it was banned from the airwaves. Another ad by Chrysler was pulled because it featured four cars racing.

Australia bans car ad with menacing or reckless driving, drunk driving, speeding or off-road driving that would violate the law. But American ads are full of this kind of stuff.

A 2005 study in the Journal of Public Health examined all the car and truck commercials that aired in the U.S. and Canada in January or July between 1998 and 2002. There were a total of 250 ads. Forty-five percent included some kind of dangerous behavior, including aggressive driving (the biggest group at 85 percent), followed by speeding (56 percent). Only 12 percent referenced safety in any way, the study found.

A Dodge ad last year, for example, features cars doing donuts around each other in a parking lot while people stood nearby clapping and cheering.

Consumer Reports conducted a review of car ads last year [PDF]. Performance-related attributes (speed, horsepower) were mentioned three times more than safety or fuel economy/green features, even though fuel economy and safety matters to a majority of car buyers.

But regulating advertisers can help change the dynamic. A 2005 study of Australia’s car ads found “performance” and “fun to drive” themes in ads declined following the introduction of regulations.

There’s evidence that this has a real impact. In 2010, a number of car ads depicting power, speed and acceleration were tested on child subjects in a research study, which found they did, in fact, promote acceptance of dangerous driving behavior.

Even the hosts of the pro-car radio show, Car Talk, recognized this a long time ago.

“Think about automotive ads on TV,” they wrote in 2006. “Nearly all of them show drivers traveling at outrageous speeds, driving recklessly, sometimes with the simple caveat (in small print), ‘professional driver on closed track’ — or some such horse hockey.”


11 thoughts on Should We Regulate Ads that Promote Dangerous Driving?

  1. If you banned every commercial where people did stupid stuff, we wouldn’t sell anything.

  2. Not only that, we should write letters to the people who produce them and publish their names and their agencies’ names on a wall of shame.

  3. “However, the right to broadcast material is not absolute. There are some restrictions on the material that a licensee can broadcast. These restrictions are discussed below.
    Subliminal programming is designed to be perceived on a subconscious level only. Regardless of whether it is effective, the broadcast of subliminal material is inconsistent with a station’s obligation to serve the public interest because it is designed to be deceptive.
    The Federal Trade Commission has primary responsibility for determining whether an advertisement is false or deceptive and for taking action against the sponsor.
    violent television programming and the negative impact this broadcast material may have on children. At the request of 39 members of the U.S. House of Representatives, the FCC conducted a proceeding asking the public’s comment on violent programming. In April 2007, the Commission delivered a Report to Congress recommending that the industry voluntarily commit to reducing the amount of this programming viewed by children. if you are offended by a station’s programming, we urge you to make your concerns known in writing to the station licensee.
    In light of their discretion to formulate their programming, station licensees are not required to broadcast everything that is offered or otherwise suggested to them. Except as required by the Communications Act, including the use of stations by candidates for public office, licensees have no obligation to allow any particular person or group to participate in a broadcast or to present that person or group’s remarks.
    from the FCC’s website, possible avenues to reshape motor vehicle ad contents and themes.

  4. No. I feel like this crosses a real line of freedom of expression. Would we also want to ban commercials showing people eating junk food or committing crimes? People that copy illegal acts they see on tv should be arrested and prosecuted not advertisers. Do you also want to ban rock music, violent video games, and sex education? Lets not become the thought police, because we enjoy cycling and walkability.

  5. “licensees have no obligation to allow any particular person or group to participate in a broadcast or to present that person or group’s remarks.” There is a legal distinction and existing restrictions on freedom of expression for those leasing public airwaves (usually at a great bargain), so it’s merely public approval or disapproval of such speech/image/music/themes that effectively controls the dissemination. There’s always cable and satellite media for those ads and content.

  6. I struggle with this issue because I don’t like the notion of limiting speech.

    However, there is a big difference between movies, TV shows, video games, etc depicting dangerous behavior as part of a story/experience vs depicting dangerous behavior as a means to sell a consumer product. Having a law that says “You may not depict illegal use of a product to promote its sale” is not exactly the “thought police”. It’s a reasonable restriction, especially if there is research that demonstrates these kinds of ads DO in fact inspire dangerous behavior.

  7. Any restriction on content would probably run afoul of the First Amendment, since it does not meet any of the criteria (imminent incitement to violence, etc.) for restricting free speech. This sort of Big-Brotherish, we know what’s best for you, so we will deny your access to [fill in the blank] for your own good, is chilling and way too authoritarian for me.

  8. No one should be allowed to sell a product that is designed to enable lawbreaking with advertising that shows the product being used to break the law.

  9. Seriously do we have to regulate everything?! Hello nanny-state. Eliminating this type of commercial will not make the roads safer. Making driving a privledge, not a right, and holding people accountable for their actions will make the streets safer.

  10. We banned cigarette ads from TV and radio. That was way back in 1970. The time has come to ban ads promoting another form of dangerous behavior.

  11. Ads are meant to sell is something with a story or image that sticks in our mind. The psychology of sales is a big factor. Yes, regulate Ads. If your neighbor Joe wants to talk about racing his Camano, you can nod and walk away, taking into context his poor judgement. An advertisement is meant to target all generations and instill in us the desire to do what we see in the ad. Plus, it is a corporation not a humans free speech.

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