Sep 1 1998

Road to Ruin

Sports Utility Vehicles and the Greening of Environmental Destruction

The Toyota 4 runner sits off-road in the middle of a fern-laden forest. The ad copy proclaims:

From a rugged mountain vista to deep in the plush forest, nature calls out for us. And the 1997 Toyota 4-wheel drive is one of the only machines capable of answering that challenge. With a powerful 183-hp V6 engine and the highest ground clearance in its class, you’ll be able to handle almost anything nature may throw at you. And with 4Runner’s roomy interior and available leather seats, civilization is never really far away.

Since the late 1980s, sales of “light trucks,” the vehicular classification which includes sport utility vehicles (SUVs) and mini-vans, have risen at double the pace of cars. In 1975, light trucks accounted for 21 percent of all light vehicles sold. But with high profits, cheap gas and one of the most aggressive marketing campaigns in American history, light trucks now claim 50 percent of market share.

Over the last decade, trucks have been transformed from a blue-collar need to a mass-market want. Luxury interiors and image marketing provide the comfort that allows consumers to make personality statements in SUVs.

Public desire for these vehicles is driven by a relentless advertising campaign that promises the wonders of nature will be yours by sitting high above the ground in a SUV. This powerful persuasive association between SUVs and the environment is communicated through some of the most stunning visual imagery of the natural world ever seen in American advertising. In this visually enhanced promotional media environment, every few minutes a Jeep or a Nissan Pathfinder is charging through Africa, surrounded by endangered species; a Ford Explorer is perched atop the spire of an awesome natural formation in the middle of a desert, or on a coastal ridge above the pounding surf; or one of them is bouncing through a wilderness forest.

Studies demonstrate the effectiveness of advertising’s claim that SUVs are compatible with the environment: Truck buyers conceive of themselves as practical, flexible, nonconformist and environmentally conscious (Business Week, 12/5/94). But depictions of the natural world in SUV ads contain a highly contradictory set of messages about nature and how we should treat the environment. While nature is depicted as beautiful, stunning and awe-inspiring, it is also threatening, a force to be reckoned with, a world to be conquered in your SUV.

Security through Domination

As one analyst explained (Business Week, 12/5/94): “It doesn’t matter what nature throws at people. You turn that key and you feel you’re in total control of the environment.” The lost of mastery over a menacing world has been deflected onto a fantasy of mastery over the environment. “Trucks give drivers a feeling of mastery over an uncertain and threatening world,” Business Week remarked. As the Blazer ad promises, “a little security in an insecure world.”

Sport utility vehicles have less to do with utility than with psychological comfort: We seem no longer able to rule our lives, but we can rule the road. Truck advertising gives symbolic form to a variety of psycho-social fears. Often personified as female, nature is dangerous–one truck ad threatens, “She will freeze you, she will burn you, she will try to blow you away”–and trucks are the vehicles that will triumph over that threat. With images of mud, dirt and water spraying out from under the tires as 4x4s tear up wilderness areas, SUV advertisements assure buyers that the best way to relate to nature is to run over it.

The actual negative effects these vehicles have on the environment are buried under advertising’s appropriation of the wondrous benefits drivers experience when they have a vehicle that will “go farther” and take them “off road” to wilderness areas. Often driving alongside any number of running mammals, from wolves to giraffes, SUVs are naturalized within the landscape. In fact, 13 percent of 4x4s are used off-road, where their intense soil disruption causes a disastrous combination of erosion and compaction, killing plants and destroying animal habitats (Dan Wright, The Road Ripper’s Guide to Off-Road Vehicles).

But while some drivers play out such fantasy encounters with nature, these “station wagons of the 90s” are mostly being used to run errands in urban and suburban settings. While doing so, they also help destroy the environment so stunningly depicted in the ads.

Gas Guzzlers

Sport Utilities are notably less fuel efficient than the cars they are replacing. In the midst of the country’s Bronco fever, the New York Times discovered that the demand for gasoline had increased dramatically by 1995, up 5 percent from the year before. As one car salesman observed (New York Times, 6/25/95), when customers shop for a vehicle like the Chevy Tahoe, they don’t even look at the sticker that says it gets 12 miles per gallon in city driving: “They don’t ask about the mileage. It’s irrelevant to most of them.” The Times article noted: “Many owners of less-fuel efficient vehicles say they gladly pay more for the pleasure of sitting high above the traffic and knowing they have four-wheel drive.” This pleasure is made affordable by a gas-pricing system that does not incorporate environmental destruction within its calculations.

Because the light truck category is not subject to the same federal regulations for emissions standards, safety equipment and fuel efficiency, the industry can continue to make them bigger, heavier and less fuel efficient. Industry lobbyists claim that the engines have to be bigger to do all that hauling, yet few of them are used for work. And while only 13 percent of them go off-road, they are designed for very high ground clearance to get over rocky, rutted, unpaved roads. The height that makes their drivers feel powerful and in control also makes them deadly.

Deadly Pleasures

Even though there are still about twice as many cars on the road as light trucks, and car to car accidents remain more common, more Americans now die in crashes involving a car and a light truck than in crashes involving two cars (New York Times, 3/19/97). When cars and light trucks collide, the person in the car is 4 times more likely to die than the person in the truck. And if a car is hit in the side, that brings the odds to 27 to 1.

Cars are designed to meet federal crash standards that test a car’s ability to “withstand a collision with a similarly shaped vehicle within 500 pounds of its own weight” (New York Times, 3/19/97). Yet a light truck outweighs an average car by at least half a ton. The high-riding, stiff steel-framed underbodies of light trucks tend to hit cars in places not designed to take the impact. The structurally weak light-weight steel of a car’s unibody shell is no match for 5000 pounds of belligerent force, bearing down on you, looking for something to dominate.

SUV purchases are now being made as “defensive buys.” With the proliferation of intimidating trucks on the road, who wants to own an anonymous econo-box that’s going to be on the losing end of that Tahoe? And as SUVs now target the female market share, advertising exalts the safety features of the vehicles; in fact, SUV drivers are 2 1/2 times more likely to die in a rollover crash than car drivers. In addition, the steel frame has a deadly effect when the driver runs into a stationary object.

Commercialized Media

While the New York Times, other papers and broadcast news magazines have publicized some safety issues surrounding the SUVs–“fleet incompatibility” and other research released by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety–broader environmental issues associated with SUVs role in global warming and ecological destruction are underreported. With the auto industry paying a good portion of media revenues, would-be truck buyers are seldom going to hear about the environmental impact of the over-extraction of fossil fuels, the mass environmental destruction caused by roads (especially on public land so lovingly depicted in the ads), or the greenhouse gases building up from emissions.

The symbolic geography of advertising eclipses the operative cultural awareness that SUVs do damage to the Earth. This advertising-dominated media terrain buries the stories of loss and destruction that would collide with the symbolic fantasies of power and control.

They won’t hear much about Shell Oil’s exploitation of Ogoniland in Nigeria, a story chosen by Project Censored as one of the top censored stories of 1997–or about the nine Nigerian environmentalists executed by their country’s dictator after protesting the oil company’s devastation of their farms and homes. (Major media organizations refused to print ads by Amnesty International exposing Shell’s destruction and involvement in the military repression of Nigerian activists.) Texaco’s devastation of the Ecuadorian rainforest was similarly downplayed.

The proliferation of car and truck advertising, and direct industry influence, blocks the discussion of environmental issues surrounding automobiles and of transportation alternatives. As advertising exalts the wilderness, it promotes an ideology and practice that destroy it. Ads reassure buyers that the worst excesses of car culture can coexist with the yearning to preserve what’s left of the natural world.

We can have it all: oil exploration, drilling and dangerous transport, the wholesale slaughter of wildlife and their habitats through road-building and the extraction of natural resources–all this and still find spiritual communion with a sanctified earth.

Robin Andersen is associate professor of communication and media studies at Fordham University. This article is a companion to the Paper Tiger video, Road to Ruin: The Real Dirt on Sport Utility Vehicles. A longer version of this article will appear in Critical Studies in Media Commercialism, Robin Andersen and Lance Strate (eds.), Oxford University Press, 1999.