Latest salvo: TV ads that link vehicles to support of terrorism
By Jeff Plungis, Ed Garsten and Mark Truby / The Detroit News
Jean-Marc Bouju / Associated Press
DETROIT -- Beyond the glittering array of new sport utility vehicles and SUV-inspired "crossover" vehicles on the floor of Cobo Center this week, there is a movement brewing against SUVs and the people who own them.
The crowd decrying the gas-guzzling ways of America's vehicle of choice has expanded beyond traditional environmental groups and liberal lawmakers on Capitol Hill. A longtime Detroit journalist, national church groups, Hollywood power brokers and a radical group called the Earth Liberation Front have climbed on board.
The industry has taken note and is watching, even as it tries to meet burgeoning consumer demand for sport utes. More than 3 million SUVs were sold in 2002, up from 1.1 million in 1992. While some executives dismiss the most extreme actions as irrelevant, they are watching carefully for any signs consumer sentiment is shifting away from a crucial market segment that generates huge profits.
"We are very concerned about it," said Jo Cooper, president of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, a trade group that represents major automakers.
The growing anti-SUV movement comes even as companies such as GM and Toyota announce plans to roll out SUV models powered by more fuel efficient gasoline-electric hybrid powertrains.
In the latest volley, conservative commentator Arianna Huffington launched the "Detroit Project" Wednesday. The ad campaign equates SUV ownership with supporting terrorism.
A child's voice narrates a 30-second spot that will begin airing Sunday. "This is George," the voice says. "This is the gas that George bought for his SUV. These are the countries where the executives bought the oil that made the gas that George bought for his SUV. These are the terrorists who get money from those countries every time George fills up his SUV."
The spot closes with a black screen with the question, "What is your SUV doing to our national security?"
Some stations, including WDIV-Channel 4 in Detroit, rejected the ads this week.
The new ads are the latest in a series of recent efforts questioning the SUV's impact on the environment:
Journalist Keith Bradshear, who covered the auto industry in Detroit for the New York Times until last year, delivered a book-length manifesto of environmental and social ills exacerbated by the SUV with "High and Mighty: The World's Most Dangerous Vehicles and How They Got That Way," published in September.
In November, the leaders of five religious denominations launched an ad campaign asking "What Would Jesus Drive?" and traveled to Detroit to convince Big Three executives they had a moral obligation to offer more fuel-efficient vehicles to protect God's earth.
The Earth Liberation Front claimed responsibility for setting fire to a Ford, Lincoln Mercury dealership near Erie, Pa. last weekend because it sold SUVs.
More than 30 SUVs have been vandalized in the Richmond, Va., area during the past few months, many with an acid-like chemical.
A Boston group, EarthonEmpty.com, is aiming to "ticket" 100,000 SUVs in May 2003 in conjunction with national Bike Week. The group has created a bright-orange mock traffic ticket that reads, in part, "We made this ticket because we live in the city, and so do you, and there's something really wrong about the way the SUV is changing our streets and the air we breathe. This is not a militarized zone!"
Efforts may backfire
Some auto executives said the anti-SUV efforts might backfire, especially if they demonize average Americans who buy the vehicles.
"Let's face it. America loves SUVs," said Ford President Nick Scheele. "They are some of the best-selling vehicles in the world. And people do love the SUVs they drive."
Still, Ford plans to begin selling a 40 mile-per-gallon gas-electric version of its Ford Escape SUV later this year.
"One of the reason we are bringing out a hybrid Escape is because we do recognize there is a segment of the population that wants an SUV and all that it can offer, but also wants to be sensitive to the environmental concerns that many people have," Scheele said.
GM this week announced plans to offer a broader array of hybrid gas-electric vehicles across much of its car and truck lineup. But the company is not retreating from its successful stable of large SUVs.
"We exist to serve the consumer," said Byron McCormick, GM's executive director of global fuel cell activities. "We don't exist if the consumer isn't excited about what we bring (to the market.) People are being perfectly rational to buy big vehicles. Fuel is very inexpensive. They want unfettered mobility."
The New Year's Day fire at the Pennsylvania new car dealership is possibly the most brazen action taken by an anti-SUV contingent. It took on the overtones of violent anti-abortion groups.
Since the fire, dealership owner Bob Ferrando said he has been deluged with calls and e-mails of support.
"One fellow from Mississippi called us and said he would drive all the way up here to buy an SUV from us," Ferrando said.
In defending the act on its Web site, earthliberationfront.com, the group said, "There is a direct relationship between our irresponsible over-consumption and lust for luxury products, and the poverty and destruction of other people and the natural world."
Charles Griffith of the Ecology Center in Ann Arbor said the ads and the acts of vandalism underscore that a growing group of people are now aware of the fuel economy issue and its link to foreign oil.
"We're not condoning any of it," Griffith said. "But it indicates a larger segment of the population feels frustrated by the political system and corporate America's lack of willingness to face the issue."
Lana Pollack of the Michigan Environmental Council said attempts to lay blame on current and prospective SUV drivers could backfire. So the MEC and the Sierra Club are vying for the ears and sensitivities of future motorists -- kids.
When the North American International Auto Show opens to the public Saturday, youngsters will be invited to engage in a scavenger hunt for environmentally-friendly vehicles on the show floor.
"Kids have a big interest in the environment and doing things right," Pollack said.
"We're working to try to create demand for hybrids and show that demand is not just among environmentalists," said Daniel Becker, director of global warming and energy programs at the Sierra Club.
Becker said GM's plan to make hybrid vehicles more widely available across its product line was "like Nixon going to China."
It's a plan that Robert Lutz, GM's vice chairman for product development, embraced only reluctantly. Lutz said the company made the move because it couldn't bow to public pressure any longer, despite the uncertain market for such vehicles.
"You just can't fly in the face of public opinion, especially not when you're General Motors, because rightly or wrongly, we have the reputation of opposing things," Lutz said. "I think it would be self-defeating to constantly say to ourselves, 'It's not gonna work, it's not gonna work.' "
But GM's move also can be construed as a gauntlet toss to the anti-SUV crowd, challenging environmentalist to buy the vehicles if GM builds them.
"At the same time 'cry for action' is reaching a shrill level, you're seeing the industry response to pressure that has been building for years," said John DeCicco, senior fellow with Environmental Defense, a moderate, New York-based environmental lobby group.
While automaker's are developing and building more fuel-efficient, car-based SUVs, the bottom line on fuel consumption is likely to change very little, DeCicco said.
"The momentum in the market," he said, "is still going in the wrong direction."
The Detroit Project ad campaign shows George filling up his SUV, as a child narrates the script.
WHAT THE ADS SAY
(A young girl's voice is speaking.)
"This is George. This is the gas that George bought for his SUV. This is the oil company executive that sold the gas that George bought for his SUV. These are the countries where the executive bought the oil, that made the gas that George bought for his SUV. And these are the terrorists who get money from those countries every time George fills up his SUV."
(Word on screen)
OIL MONEY SUPPORTS SOME TERRIBLE THINGS.
WHAT KIND OF MILAGE DOES YOUR SUV GET?
Paid for by The Detroit Project
(The ads show a series of "talking heads," much like the anti-drug ads connecting drug use to support of terrorists.)
"I helped hijack an airplane. I helped blow up a nightclub. So what if it gets 11 miles to the gallon. I gave money to a terrorist training camp in a foreign country. It makes me feel safe. I helped our enemies develop weapons of mass destruction. What if I need to go off-road? Everyone has one. I helped teach kids around the world to hate America. I like to sit up high. I sent our soldiers off to war. Everyone has one. My life, my SUV. I don't even know how many miles it gets to the gallon."
(Words on screen)
WHAT IS YOUR SUV DOING TO OUR NATIONAL SECURITY?
DETROIT, AMERICA NEEDS HYBRID CARS NOW.
Paid for by The Detroit Project
(Photo)Conservative syndicated commentator Arianna Huffington founded the television ad campaign, which some stations have rejected.