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Status Report, Vol. 35, No. 8 | September 30, 2000 Subscribe

Car ads focus on speed and horsepower, not safety

Car ads today pitch speed and performance but rarely safety. This trend is clear from a recent study of virtually all car and minivan commercials that appeared on national television during 1998. The study was conducted by InterData researchers working with Institute staff. The researchers also looked at samples of commercials that aired during 1983, 1988, and 1993. Together these ads suggest that the glorification of power and speed is almost as pervasive now as it was 10 or 15 years ago.

For example, a 1998 Mitsubishi ad features a young female driver who appears to break the sound barrier as she barrels down the highway in her red sports car. The message? The Eclipse is "uncommonly fast and fun to drive."

Another recent commercial is for the Saturn L series, showing the sporty sedan bearing down on another car on the highway. Though the driver of the Saturn appears to be blissfully at ease with how fast he's going, the driver ahead of him tauntingly steps on the gas as if he has been challenged to race. The Saturn then "wins" with its apparently superior power.

These ads don't reflect the big business that auto safety has become. More and more consumers say they look for safety when buying a vehicle. In turn, auto manufacturers are actively competing for consumers' dollars by engineering a wide range of features into their fleets and claiming all sorts of safety improvements. They're just not advertising safety.

Instead, many car commercials either ignore safety or undermine it by obscuring the fact that driving fast or aggressively increases motorists' crash risk. This advertising strategy is strikingly at odds with the value consumers now are placing on safety.

In quantifiable terms, performance is the overriding theme in 17 percent of the 1998 car ads, making this the single most prominent theme. Both power and speed are featured in almost half of the ads. Maneuverability, ride, and handling are in 70 percent.

"Despite all we know about how high speed contributes to injuries and deaths, this kind of performance is still being marketed to consumers as the defining aspect of a car," says the Institute's research vice president, Susan Ferguson. "Even when performance isn't front and center in a commercial, it's present on some level in about half of all the ads."

Safety barely registers as an advertising theme. It generally appears in fewer than 10 percent of car commercials, with the exception of 1993 when it appeared in about a third. This short-lived emphasis on safety came at a time when auto manufacturers were aggressively touting the availability of frontal airbags, which were being phased in ahead of new requirements from the federal government.

Manufacturers may be missing a big marketing opportunity by choosing to advertise performance and not safety. This choice runs counter to the industry's own data showing that consumer interest in safety is on the rise. For example, a 1999 DaimlerChrysler survey of new car buyers reported by Automotive News shows 84 percent saying safety features are "extremely" or "very" important factors in their vehicle-buying decisions — up from 64 percent in 1981.

The Institute obtained similar results from a previous survey (see "Safety is important, but may not be key, buyers say," July 6, 1996). Seventy-three percent of respondents who had recently bought or leased vehicles said they considered safety an important factor in their purchase decisions. But many respondents also said they assume most cars are safe. Few said they sought information on their prospective vehicles' crash test performance or on-the-road safety performance prior to making their purchases. What they did seek was information about safety features, most often air bags.

This way of thinking about safety is mirrored in auto advertising. In the current survey, the few commercials with safety themes reference features like airbags or antilock brakes. Little attention is paid to other factors — vehicle size, weight, and structure — that influence crashworthiness. Nor do the ads emphasize crash test performance.

While crash test information doesn't often appear in advertisements, it has been available to the public through the government's New Car Assessment Program since 1978 and from the Institute since 1995. In recent years manufacturers have touted both government and Institute crash test results for a few models.

The Institute's crash test ratings, used only once or twice in commercials that aired before 1999, have appeared since then in both print and television spots run by BMW, Ford, Lexus, Mercedes, Subaru, Toyota, Volkswagen, and Volvo. But overall, commercials with safety themes still represent the minority of advertising spots.

So while the safety pitch may be becoming more prominent, the larger problem persists — speed and power continue to dominate the ads.

"Promoting the performance and high-speed capabilities of cars in advertising is irresponsible," Institute president Brian O'Neill says. "It subverts efforts to address aggressive driving and high speed as serious safety problems, and it should have no place in advertising."

New car buyers who say safety features are "extremely" or "very" important
1981 64%
1983 67%
1985 73%
1987 74%
1989 76%
1991 77%
1993 79%
1995 83%
1997 83%
1999 84%
Source: "Safety steps into the spotlight," Automotive News, March 6, 2000.
Top themes of auto commercials in 1998: percentage of ads with various themes
Performance 17%
Sales incentives 15%
Good value for money 12%
New and improved, unique 11%
Quality, reliability, durability 8%
Styling 4%
Comfort, convenience 4%
Luxury, prestige 4%
Well-engineered 3%
Safety 2%
Source: Ferguson et al. 2000. Content analysis of television advertising for cars and minivans. Arlington, VA: Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
Some countries have limits on car ads

The content of advertisements is protected as free speech in the U.S., but other countries have more explicit standards when it comes to selling vehicles on television.

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