Tuesday, July 23, 2024
Business & EconomicsCulture & LanguageMobility

Cars, Advertising, and The Cult of Individualism

On Twitter, UK-based Jon Burke pointed out an interesting trend in car commercials: the lack of cars in them. Burke, a cabinet member for Energy, Waste, Transport, and Public Realm in Hackney, London, made the observation with a number of screencaps from car commercials from European car companies (though the standard holds in the US as well). It’s an interesting trend. It’s also one we can think about challenging as we look toward new paradigms of mobility.

We’ve all seen it: the improbably large, overpowered pickup truck, towing a trailer full of God knows what, off-roading in a desert. Or the sleek SUV traversing downtown streets that are, mysteriously, empty during rush hour sunset. Who is towing a trailer full of 2x4s into the middle of the desert? With a Dodge Ram? Honestly, nobody. More likely, you’re using that vehicle to tote your groceries from Wal-Mart back to your suburban ranch home. (You’re actually probably going to put the groceries in the cab, not in the bed of the truck– so what do you even use it for!?). Indeed, only a small percentage of pickup truck drivers even drive offroad more than once a year. And very few actually even use the bed to haul stuff! (My cousin, a carpenter in Boston, told me he drove a Toyota Sienna because you can’t fit 4×8 sheet goods in a pickup truck– but you can definitely fit them in a Toyota Sienna).

Drivers are conditioned to believe that the world exists for them– and just them.

In 2020, vehicle miles traveled (VMT) decreased by 13.2%, but fatalities increased by 7.2%.

But that’s not the point.

The problem with the cult of individualism when it comes to cars, as pointed out by Mr. Burke, is that not only is it an utterly inaccurate portrayal of the automotive experience, it’s also dangerous, to that end.

Increasingly feeling disempowered by our surroundings, whether a dead-end job we hate or the crushing oppression of the pandemic, advertisers would have us believe that we can escape by exercising the power of the gas pedal. It’s a mentality that led last year to a 23% increase in fatalities per VMT, according to NHTSA. Driving decreased last year by 13.2%, but fatalities increased by 7.2%. These numbers are pretty astounding, given the substantial increases in automotive safety technology that have emerged as automakers flounder in the race to develop autonomous technology. Things like lane-keeping assist, adaptive cruise control, or automatic braking. While these do save lives, the human behavior element is still pretty critical. 

This isn’t to say that individualism is all bad. Especially as emphasized by the automobile, there’s a uniquely American drive– no pun intended- to create, to differentiate, to build, in a way that emphasizes the individual. Sure, it create a lot of problems. Like, you know, debasing the entire notion of a social contract. That’s problematic, to say the least. But the cult of individualism plays out in terms of single-occupant vehicles by way of their destructiveness. Cars are not only destructive to the environment, exacerbating climate change and emitting other nasty particulates and volatiles– they’re also destructive to humans, to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars per year. it’s possible for us to embrace individualism and collectivist ideals of not killing one another using two-ton steel death machines. Marketers might consider this more often, as they have done with the eBike.

Nat M. Zorach

Nat M. Zorach, AICP, MBA, is a city planner and energy professional based in Detroit, where he writes about infrastructure, sustainability, tech, and more. A native of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, he attended Grinnell College in Iowa, the Kogod School of Business at American University, the POCACITO transatlantic program, the SISE program at the University of Illinois Chicago, and he is also a StartingBloc Social Innovation Fellow. He enjoys long walks through historic, disinvested Rust Belt neighborhoods at sunset. (Nat's views and opinions are his own and do not represent those of his employer).

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