Auto Industry Runs Ad Campaign As Stupid As Pending Fuel Economy Legislation It Takes On

Posted by: David Kiley on May 25, 2007

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The Alliance for Automobile Manufacturers has launched a radio ad campaign in an attempt to drive e-mail and letter traffic to Washington legislators urging them not to vote for tougher fuel economy legislation in the coming weeks. The legislation, says the Alliance, would raise the cost of car and trucks and force the public to buy smaller (less safe) cars.

As cynical and stupid as the radio scripts are, I almost can’t blame the trade association/lobby from airing them. The legislation itself is so cynical and stupid that I guess you fight fire with fire. Or do you? What does that mean anyway? Fight fire with fire? Don’t you fight fire with water and sometimes foamy stuff that douses the flames?

Congress is pushing higher fuel economy for cars and trucks by way of forcing the automakers to inject fuel saving technology into vehicles. In the end, high enough fuel economy ratings will simply cause automakers to build smaller cars (smaller and lighter vehicles =better fuel economy) or stuff so much new technology into the vehicles that a Chevy Malibu could cost $30,000-plus. A Dodge Ram pickup that costs around $25,000 today with basic equipment might cost $35,000 after some of the pending legislation passes.

The automakers hate this sort of legislation and regulatory saber rattling. And for good reason. As General Motors chairman Rick Wagoner has said more than once, he wants a change in energy policy that forces consumers to have some “skin in the game.” That is code for…Wagoner wants Congress and the White House to have some cajones and talk about a gasoline tax that would permanently make gasoline prices $4.00 and up. But no one running for President and no lawmaker with any serious juice is talking up a gas tax.

So, the Alliance ads, which can be heard at www.driveCongress.com, as well as several states where pickup trucks and SUVs are very popular, are just as insipid as the cowardly legislation Congress is trying to push. Cowardly? Yes. Lawmakers are following polling that tells them that anyone voting for gas tax will be out of office in the next election.

One ad features two women, Moms, talking. One says she likes her car, and realizes it is a little bigger than other vehicles. But she is concerned about safety. Her friend tells her that she better hold onto it, because Congress is going to raise fuel economy standards too far, thus making it harder to get a car like hers in the future. The second ad features two men, with one saying it may be time to get a new pickup. His friend says he better buy onoe now and hold onto it for a long time, because Congress wants to hold trucks and cars to the same higher fuel economy, and it’s going to cost truck buyers a whole lot more in the future for a new truck. The two, sounding like they are in a WaWa’s parking lot in Oklahoma or Iowa, say that those fellers in Washington don’t know the difference between a car and a truck. Ho. Ho. Ho.

First: Any legislation that might pass would undoubtedly allow some tax relief for commercial businesses that require a truck. If the pickups cost more because of regs that force higher fuel economy, there are enough legialators in Congress looking out for the pickup truck audience to dial that in. At worst, businesses that have to pay more for pickups would have to pass on those costs to their customers. So be it.

The lady who wants her big car has a point. She asks in the ad why they don’t allow consumers to choose what they will buy. She doesn’t want a Ford Focus forced on her. The answer, of course, is a gas tax. If the lady is willing to pay more for her gas hungry vehicle, that’s reasonable. Make her pay $5.00 a gallon or more. In a sane society, $1.50 of that would go to tax offsets for people who opt to buy vehicles that get more than 35 mpg.

The Alliance doesn’t offer a better solution in its ads or rhetoric other than suggesting that we should be hassling legislators to fund and push ethanol, bio-diesel, hydrogen, etc. But that’s lame, because, that solution requires that oil companies rapidly change their whole business model and energy delivery infrastructure. Alterenative fuels are part of the solution, for sure. But I am weary of pushing solutions to our addiction to oil further and further into the future.

You really have to know the details of the fuel economy and gas price debate to get the nuance in the ads. Ther Alliance ads are mostly dumb-as-hammer messages aimed at people I might loosely describe as the Screweveryoneelsebutmeandmine crowd. These are people have no recognition or knowledge of the idea that the United States is perennially locked in a state of costly warfare with one Middle Eastern country or another because of the country’s addiction to oil. They make no connection between the Cadillac Escalade in the driveway and the list of dead soldiers posted every Sunday morning on “This Week with George Stephanopolous.”

They are people who will buy a Hummer H2 or Ford Expedition because they want to enhance their personal safety in case they are in an accident. I guess on some susper-sonic selfish level I can understand that argument. But that doesn’t get us anywhere as a society if we want to stop being a prisoner to hostile oil producing countries.

Is that harsh? It’s meant to sound harsh. When politicians, CEOs and Congressional staffers tell me the reason they won’t get behind a gas tax they all know is the right way to go because they are afraid of the reaction of the Screweveryoneelsebutmeandmine crowd, and then we see the automakers fund an ad campaign aimed at enflaming that very crowd, it’s hard not to sound harsh.

I’m not making this up. CEOs, pols and staffers have all told me privately that they know a gas tax that will drive market demand long term for more fuel efficient vehicles, as Europe has, is the right way to achieve the goals. That way the Screweveryoneelsebutmeandmine crowd, if they want Hummer H2s and Toyota Sequoias for reasons of vanity rather than need, will have to pay through the nose to keep them filled with gas.

But nobody so far has the guts to start that conversation with the public.

This ad campaign by the Alliance is as simple-minded and cynical as the legislation it hopes to defeat.

Lucky us.

Drive safely this Memorial Day.

Reader Comments

Matthew Bell

May 27, 2007 7:33 PM

I enjoyed this article. Nicely written David! Thank you.

I have but one critique. There was NO mention of global climate change due to increased carbon emissions that result from poor gas mileage. Your "sensible" gas tax would really sock it to the "Screweveryoneelsebutmeandmine" crowd, or would it? Would this make it ok for them to essentially puff their damn pollution in my face? Most of you economic buffs sing the praises of "market forces" to handle every problem under the sun. I propose that this may be one problem that needs some governemnt regulation. The reason? The Screweveryoneelsebutmeandmine crowd doesn't care about anyone else but themselves.

Also, I don't know why the american automakers are so resistant to making vehicles with better gas mileage. Toyota has been making hybrids for years and their stocks have been soaring. What have GM stocks been doing?

Tony Belding

May 28, 2007 9:12 AM

On a recent episode of Autoline Detroit, John McElroy made the case against CAFE and for a higher gasoline tax. I thought his argument was lucid and convincing. On the next episode he reported that he'd gotten a huge reaction, more emails on that subject than he'd ever gotten before, and they were unanimously against higher gas prices.

So, when lawmakers say they're afraid voting for higher gas taxes would get them thrown out of office on the next election, it's sad to say but they are probably right. We can't realistically expect elected officials to fight that battle and fall on their swords for this issue.

I do think we'll eventually get there: gasoline prices will trend up and up, year by year, regardless of anything the Congress does. The laws of supply and demand will take care of that.

Matt

June 7, 2007 12:32 PM

I recall the Governor of Maryland is contemplating a gas tax. We'll have to see how that pans out. Anyway, I do some work with the Auto Alliance and I wanted to point out that the legislation under consideration could limit the number of vehicle models that people could buy. It's not just a price issue. Moms and dads all love their minivans and local businesses depend on their trucks and SUVs for their livelihood. Rep. Dingell recently introduced a bill that is far more realistic.

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News, opinions, inflammatory meanderings and occasional ravings about the world of advertising, marketing and media. By marketing editor Burt Helm, Innovation Editor Helen Walters, and senior correspondent Michael Arndt.

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