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Content analysis of television advertising for cars and minivans: 1983-98

Ferguson, Susan A.; Hardy, Andrew P.; Williams, Allan F.
Accident Analysis and Prevention
November 2003

Very little systematic information is available about the predominant advertising themes automobile manufacturers have depicted over the years. The goal of the present study was to analyze television vehicle advertising to understand how cars and passenger vans are being portrayed in the media and how this has changed over time. A virtually complete sample (561) of car and passenger van advertisements from 1998, and a sample of advertisements from 1983 (98), 1988 (96), and 1993 (95), was analyzed for content. Performance, most often exemplified as speed, power, and maneuverability, was the primary theme in 17% of advertisements in 1998 and was depicted in half of all advertisements. Performance was also the most frequent theme over time. Sales incentives also was a popular theme in each year studied, and was predominant in 1993. Safety was mentioned infrequently, except in 1993; a time when manufacturers were competing to install airbags in their vehicles. A focus on vehicle performance in advertising that does not depict the potential negative consequences can have the deleterious effects of glamorizing and legitimizing high-speed travel. Furthermore, manufacturers are missing an opportunity to promote vehicle safety, a feature that consumers have indicated is very important to them.