SUV, marketing and environmentalism in America are the themes of this article

 As Americans start to realize the vast wastefulness of SUV’s, marketers waste no time in responding.

A recent print ad for the Dodge Ram shows the truck’s imposing grille covered with dead bugs and huge letters with a warning: “Some Bugs Die More Noble Deaths Than Others.” The not so hidden message: If you’re gonna get killed by a vehicle, it might as well be a Ram. Why, given the numerous reports documenting the inherent dangers of SUV’s (Sports Utility Vehicles), would Dodge use this metaphor? The answer is simple. In our violent culture, death sells.

Marketing psychologists have somehow figured out that potential buyers are more into Rambo, than shall we say, Rimbaud. Another Dodge ad offers up its larger than life vehicle with one word. “Rammunition.” Indeed, with themes of death and weaponry, these adverts are clearly appealing to the warriors among us. At least the ones who eat hamburgers.

The third ad in the same campaign makes a full-scale assault on vegetarians. The tag line here: “It’s A Big Fat Juicy Cheeseburger In A Land Of Tofu.” But even more provoking is the question the ad poses: “Why drive some pathetic excuse for an SUV when you can wrap your hands around a Dodge Durango?” Dodge’s demographic experts have not only calculated that potential Durango purchasers are more likely to be carnivores, they’ve also estimated them to be caught up with the notion of size.

All This Power

However, contrary to the hype advertisers feed us, the typical man or woman does not actually purchase such vehicles to head up unpaved mountain roads. In fact, only 5% use these monoliths for offroading. SUV ownership goes beyond even the notion of status.

Sure, these drivers may feel privileged looking down on the rest of the world from their nine-way power seats. But their subconscious motivation in owning these gargantuan vehicles derives from a sense of invincibility. Something sorely lacking in a society threatened by snipers, gangs and of course, Saddam Hussein.

Which bring us to the Gulf War and the tale of the High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle, more affectionately known as the Humvee. First built in 1985, this quasi-tank was used by the US army in Kuwait. A year after the war ended in 1992, someone decided to start selling a modified version to civilians. For a cool hundred grand, Americans could transport their groceries in the same vehicles used to transport their boys overseas.

But like all good products, the Humvee grew obsolete, ultimately evolving into the more affordable Hummer H1. Truth be told, unlike the majority of SUV owners, some Hummer drivers actually use their vehicles for more than just going to the mall. A visit to the Hummer Club’s web site will yield more photos than one could ever want of H1 enthusiasts tearing up the environment in places like Moab in Utah, Denali National Park in Alaska and as one participant put it “the scenic desert wonderland” of Death Valley.

In traversing creek beds and scaling dried up waterfalls, these individuals may believe they’re communing with the great outdoors. In reality, they’re disrupting ecosystems and turning natural areas into obstacle courses.

Still, General Motors knows that the average Hummer aficionado is only interested in its mystique. That’s why it introduced the Hummer H2 in 2002. Here was a more comfortable, scaled back version with a wider appeal and more luxury features. But like its sports ute brethren, with a payload capacity of 8600 pounds, the five passenger H2 is conveniently 100 pounds above the cut-off point that would have required it to adhere to the fuel economy standards reserved for normal transport. The H2 averages 13 miles per gallon.

No matter. To those paunchy, balding Hollywood producers and other daredevil wannabes, the H2 will help them reclaim their youth and sense of adventure. True, this ‘evolved’ Hummer driver won’t likely be tearing up the topsoil in pristine areas, but you can be sure he or she will still be doing their part for environmental degradation. What they won’t be doing, luckily for them, is flipping over. The H2’s relatively close to the ground configuration helps avoid this problem.

Not so, of course, with the Ford Explorer and other traditional SUV’s. In fact, as any automobile dealer won’t tell you, rollover death rates are double those of regular cars. Yet, why worry about mangling your loved ones and contributing needlessly to global warming, when as the Chevy Tahoe declares, “You can use all this power to go way out there, take in the awe-inspiring vastness and realize, that with your powerful new Tahoe, your position in the world has just risen slightly.”

If you sense a hint of inner probing in those words, you’re not far off. For that same Tahoe ad also provides the following invocation. “You are a microscopic speck in the Universe. You might as well be a microscopic speck with more power.”

Earth on Empty

Cruising beyond the rough and tumble, macho, good ole boy market, ad execs have discovered that spirituality sells. So, unlike the screaming messages of aggression, a whole other breed of ad is capitalizing on the growing American trend toward spirituality. Yes, those same SUV’s responsible for desecrating our sacred places are being portrayed not as a vehicle for driving, but as vehicles for finding one’s spiritual path.


Consider an ad for the Hummer H1. Here we see a dreamy white sand beach, sun high overhead with the understated silhouette of a tank-like vehicle in the distance. The small font reads, “How did my soul get way out here?” The tag line: “Sometimes you find yourself in the middle of nowhere. And sometimes in the middle of nowhere you find yourself.”

Apparently the importance Hummer placed on accessing our inner selves waned quickly, for within a year the company was following Dodge’s screaming rhetoric. In the latest series of ads for the H1’s replacement, we see a close-up shot of the H2 dominating that same stretch of sand. Only this time, the prose appeals to those on a much different path. “IT ONLY LOOKS LIKE THIS BECAUSE IT’S BADASS.”

The less car-mically challenged among us needn’t give up hope, though. Yes, these vehicles now make up over 50% of the automobile market in the States and increasingly throughout the world, but a growing discontent for all they represent is bubbling to the surface with some positive developments.

In Boston, Massachusetts, a group of artists calling themselves Earth on Empty (www.earthonempty.com) is working to make people aware of the human and environmental dangers associated with SUV’s. Volunteers distribute their message in the form of very convincing mock parking citations. Since the first ticketing event In May 2001, the group has expanded its efforts to 350 cities throughout the US. One of the group’s founders, J. d’Tagger, estimates they’ve ticketed about 1 million, or 5% of all, SUV’s in this country.

Other changes are coming directly from the source. The major auto companies are all debuting energy saving hybrid SUV’s. Even Ford, notorious for its behemoth eight-passenger Excursion, plans to unveil its first Hybrid SUV, the Ford Escape, in 2003.

Unfortunately, while greater fuel efficiency is certainly welcome, such modifications do little to counteract the many other negative consequences of our driving addiction. Even a zero emissions Sports Utility Vehicle will continue to contribute to urban sprawl, social alienation and resource depletion.

And let’s not forget the close to 150 million total vehicles already traversing the U.S. asphalt with many more to follow. Sure, it’s easy to place all the blame on SUV’s but does it really matter all that much how big or wasteful an individual vehicle is? Is a family with one 12 mpg Toyota Landcruiser less socially responsible than the one with two 31 mpg Chevy Prisms? On a planet threatened by environmental destruction, excess is excess.

Something even Hummer understands. Their latest advertisement shows the former war-mobile with the following message: “Excessive. In a Rome at the height of its power sort of way.” This makes me wonder how precipitous our downward fall will be.


This article was printed in New Renaissance, Vol. 11, No. 4, issue 39, Spring, 2003  Copyright © 2003 by Renaissance Universal, all rights reserved.  Posted on the web on March 22,  2003.