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Status Report, Vol. 38, No. 10 | SPECIAL ISSUE: SPEEDING | November 22, 2003 Subscribe

Car advertising emphasizes speed and performance

Auto manufacturers encourage speeding by building ever more powerful vehicles and relentlessly appealing to potential car buyers to "get the feeling" of all that power.

Institute researchers surveyed car commercials on television in 1983, 1988, 1993, and 1998, finding that performance was the most frequent theme of the ads (see "Car ads focus on speed and horsepower, not safety," Sept. 30, 2000). In contrast, safety was the theme of only 2 percent of the ads surveyed in 1998.

More recently, the Institute monitored car advertisements in national publications and on national television during July 2003. These ads indicate that performance is a preferred method of selling cars. For example:

Porsche boasts that satellites have trouble keeping up with the positioning of fast-moving Cayennes. Jaguar's XJ "goes fast, faster .... Drag coefficient improves, aerodynamic efficiency is maximized, and a grin on your face is guaranteed."

Cars like these, which are known for performance, aren't the only ones to feature speed capabilities in advertisements. Volvo emphasizes the souped-up aspects of its S60 model. Subaru describes the Forester Turbo as "assertive" with "power to spare."

Institute president Brian O'Neill gives Subaru some credit, saying "this company does display restraint by comparing the power of the Forester to that of bicyclist Lance Armstrong, not a Ninja racer like we see in some other advertising. Besides, compared with many other carmakers Subaru pays more attention to safety in its advertisements."

Mercedes lures buyers with "lightning under the hood." Toyota reminds car shoppers that "slow and steady wins the race" only "in fairy tales." Dodge tells us in huge type to "burn rubber." Print ads for Pontiacs are even less subtle, encouraging potential buyers to "unleash your nasty little urges."

Remember those disclaimers that routinely used to accompany auto advertising? Cautions to "please drive safely" and "obey speed limits" always were afterthoughts, and now they're frequently absent from ads altogether. Even when they're included, they virtually always are relegated to the fine print or flashed on the television screen for a fraction of a second.

On television the Infiniti M45 is proclaimed "the muscle car with brains." Over a chase scene in which a black Mercedes is being pursued by motorcycles and a helicopter, there's this message: "To catch one, you gotta be in one."

Even Camrys are hyped for performance. In one commercial, a driver goes backwards, jumps hilltops, and swerves across four lanes, all miraculously empty of traffic. The tagline: "My car makes me feel like the road is my playground."

O'Neill counters that "driving isn't a game. Ads like this send the wrong message. It's up to drivers to obey speed limits, but the manufacturers aren't helping with ads that equate going fast with having fun."

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More and more power

The average horsepower of vehicles increased 65 percent from 1980 to 2000.

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