Can We Blame Automotive Marketing For Reckless Driving?

Automotive marketing speak may be influencing drivers to be more reckless.

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Anyone who has ever bought anything knows that the goal of the seller is to make their product seem far-and-away the best product on the market, but one Bloomberg writer is arguing that the language we use to sell cars has been contributing to an excess of reckless driving.

Researchers have found that around half of U.S. car ads feature dangerous driving behavior,” Danny Harris wrote, linking to an academic paper published in the Journal of Public Health.On the Dodge website and social media channels, examples of this are readily apparent. Messaging invites drivers to ‘conquer the streets of America’ with an ‘aggressive’ and ‘intimidating’ fleet. Purchase a Dodge and enter the ‘brotherhood of muscle.’ The company sells cars named ‘Charger,’Demon’ and ‘Ram.’”

Harris also points out the “Ford Tough” sales language as falling into a similar category, one that markets vehicles with elements of speed, danger, and thrills that run counter to efforts for safer driving. And he notes the history that the U.S. has when it comes to marketing dangerous products:

The U.S. has a substantial history of affecting how industries, especially those with harmful products, market their goods. Advertisements for cigarettes were banned from American radio and television by an act of Congress in 1971. Billboard ads for cigarettes, including cartoon advertisements that target children, like Joe Camel, were banned in 1998 as part of a settlement. The alcohol industry has developed its own standards for self-regulation — a model the car industry could also follow.

And regulations make a difference. Although studies have been mixed on whether cigarette advertising actually prompts people to start smoking, research has found that comprehensive regulations banning cigarette advertising have the power to reduce cigarette consumption. Consumers are similarly susceptible to advertisements that celebrate dangerous driving. A 2010 study found that after viewing car ads that promoted high-speed driving and rapid acceleration, people were more likely to think those driving behaviors were a good idea.

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I don’t think it’s a secret to anyone that pushing the boundaries in a car ad has become pretty standard. Even though most folks aren’t going to be taking their cars to the race track, going off-roading through intense conditions, or testing the limits on a winding mountain road, that’s still how we market vehicles. It’s designed to show the capabilities of these vehicles, to lend them a little bit of oomph to set them above the competitors. That’s what marketing is supposed to do. But Harris is arguing that there are better ways to accomplish that goal.

As I argued in a blog last weekend, Americans like big, loud cars that appeal to their adventurous spirit. Just look at the sheer number of “rugged” SUVs with luxury interiors that are hitting the market; a good portion of buyers are likely not going to use, say, the Jeep Grand Cherokee L for an intense off-roading adventure, but that’s a selling feature of the vehicle because it’s the kind of thing Americans expect. We tend to care less about things like fuel efficiency or comfort because we really dig performance.

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Does that make us worse drivers? Maybe. But there’s definitely an argument to be made in considering the way we market cars, because as a generation of Jackass viewers have learned, a little “don’t try this at home” warning isn’t enough to dissuade a thrill-seeker.