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Should Car Ads Be Banned?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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But maybe they should be.

A look at the ubiquitous aggressive driver in Psychology & Marketing, shows that he (more than she) tends to view a vehicle as an extension of The Self. “Perceiving cars as an extension to oneself might lead pe0ple to interpret any threat to their cars as a direct threat to themselves,” the authors wrote.

The studies didn’t address the obvious question of which part of selves were extended.  And maybe this all seems pretty obvious for personal property that is sometimes christened by  owners with names like “Exploder,” “Bucky,” “Koo Koo,” “John Claude Grand Slam” and “Desdemona.”

Some of this clearly restates what we already know. Men and cars (ah, you know), teenagers as lethal weapons and when you’re late for work, you step on it.  The nominal reason for looking at the question anew was to assess car ownership as a “consumption experience.” Studies on aggressive driving have been around for awhile, but few have looked at the aggro driver from the perspective of consumer marketing behavior.

The two new studies—lumped into “Aggressive Driving: A Consumption Experience” by Ayalla A. Ruvio of Temple University and Aviv Shoham of the University of Haifa, comprising several hundred questionnaires in total—found that people who identify with their car (remember the worst TV show ever, My Mother the Car?) tend to be the ones who weave around slowpokes, zoom ahead to beat you out of a parking space, the same drivers who curse and wave their fists and eventually end up with a pending court date.

In a section called “practical implications,” the authors suggest an advertising campaign that cautions about the risks of aggressive driving, ads that perhaps stress, in the authors’ words, the merits of thinking of the car as “a functional tool [sic] for getting from one place to another.” Ruvio and Shoham scrupulously ignore the biggest question that hangs over the issue of the Porsche, Lamborghini or Mercedes as extension of self.

From the time Madison Avenue stopped becoming a horse and buggy route, it has co-opted the best minds of generation after generation of creative executive to help make consumers believe that the automobile is a form of exoskeleton that is as much a part of each one of us as a right thumb or left femur. So if correlation equals causation, maybe we should pull car ads.

Like I said though, it’ll never happen. Defensive driving spots aren’t going to edge out off-road, light truck, hormone-tickling ad spots during the Super Bowl.

Image source: Wikimedia Commons



Gary Stix About the Author: Gary Stix, a senior editor, commissions, writes, and edits features, news articles and Web blogs for SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN. His area of coverage is neuroscience. He also has frequently been the issue or section editor for special issues or reports on topics ranging from nanotechnology to obesity. He has worked for more than 20 years at SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN, following three years as a science journalist at IEEE Spectrum, the flagship publication for the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. He has an undergraduate degree in journalism from New York University. With his wife, Miriam Lacob, he wrote a general primer on technology called Who Gives a Gigabyte? Follow on Twitter @@gstix1.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. PAULBOT 8:34 pm 10/19/2011

    Car ads should not be banned, per se, but they should be regulated. The industry ad mavens go head to head trying to outdo the other in portraying their car as the one that is most aggressive, most risky in its driving maneuvers, i.e., side-slipping at high speed into well choreographed demonstrations of machismo. My recommendation: each ad with this type of “appeal” must pay $1 Million per airing. The money will go into a special fund to provide the necessary money for the families of the real life victims who have been killed or maimed by – usually 25 yr old and younger males – who believe the hype that their manhood is wrapped up in their driving aggression.

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  2. 2. hanmeng 12:50 am 10/20/2011

    If you’re successful in pushing your agenda to regulate speech you dislike, the other side is eventually going to take advantage of the regulatory apparatus to regulate speech they dislike.

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  3. 3. Postulator 3:30 am 10/20/2011

    Most car ads seem to be trying to persuade men to compensate for having lost out in other areas of life (biologically speaking).

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  4. 4. davidhill222 8:01 am 10/20/2011

    Another example of the thought patrol and the political correctness running amok. A cigar is only a cigar and a car is only a car.
    Those guys want to emasculate men in any possible imaginable way. And they come up with this stupid psychological mumbo-jumbo!
    By the way, SciAm has become a political magazine, where is the science in this article? Since when opinions of new-age, post-modern pseudo-intellectuals is science?

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  5. 5. David N'Gog 8:24 am 10/20/2011

    Wow! Bang- there goes all advertising. Can’t advertise food because that make people want to eat more. Can’t advertise cleaning products- because then people will become obsessive compulsive. Can’t advertise clothes or shoes because that gives women “body-issues”.

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  6. 6. Cogitari 11:03 am 10/20/2011

    Like most problems, this one has more than one solution. Rather than limiting free speech, which starts us down a dangerous path, I think it would be better to educate people on how to identify when they are being manipulated and how to compensate for the effect. Unfortunately, all the money seems to be in figuring out how to manipulate people (both manufacturers and politicians rely on this) rather than the reverse, so how to get this done is a problem in itself.

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  7. 7. jnas88 11:09 am 10/20/2011

    Why? Why not?

    I own a 2007 Kawasaki 650R Ninja and blur past slow pokes, idiots, and death defying old fokes (fist shakers are the slow, hahaha) in gas guzzlers, eco-cars alike daily.

    Guess what? Television advertising did not make me buy it.

    This is a blog anyways, not supposed to be a science journal, let get creative here.

    So my point is, world views about television advertising are skewed in all directions. Why do we need them? Why not get rid of it? I bought my things because of their reliability history, and how they look for me, etc. I fervently ignore commercials, and I went to school for business, get that.

    I believe we can all decide what we want for ourselves, and I have no need for advertising.

    This neither means advertising is justified, or that it should be banned. It rather suggest that consumption advertising is useless, or only serves basic utility to ultimate supply of business employees, business owner, government, economy, and lastly the people who control the policies which dictate down through all. Where is the individual/user?

    As of current there is no way to fairly represent rationality of humans wants and needs across this consumption problem. We are highly hedonistic and apocalyptic with our self centered needs. Hence the policy makers could do anything but take away our right to consume, that is the last straw (they know it). To tough to answer, no black and white without a lot of gray, hence the confusion about what to do for everyone’s application. Let the good times roll.

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  8. 8. outsidethebox 12:13 pm 10/20/2011

    Imagine someone from the right side of the political spectrum advocating censorship. The howls of protest would be heard from coast to coast. But when it comes from the left there is no outcry and sadly no surprise.

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  9. 9. JDahiya 3:42 am 10/21/2011

    Are all citizens of the USA political animals first and thinking animals later?

    I appreciate the blog post that points out that car ads have painted themselves into a corner. No car company today can (or even wants to) break away from the image of car as exoskeleton. Since their prime target is 25 year old males, they go with images that presumably appeal to this target. Younger males get influenced by this (it is socially acceptable, or surely they would not advertise this). So, society does in fact have a problem as a result. How do you break out of it? Ban the ads? Ha ha ha, good joke, will never happen; nice thought, though.

    I still don’t understand why this blog should result in knee-jerk reactions about ‘free speech under attack’ and ‘thought police’.

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  10. 10. DexterIsMyHero 2:26 am 11/7/2011

    Look at all the car ads on TV these days. What’s the message? “Buy our car and INSTANTLY the road will be empty and you can drive as FAR and as FAST as you want…on roads, off roads, up the sides of buildings, etc. etc.

    They are playing on all those puerile escapist fantasies many adults refuse to cast aside, because they WANT YOUR MONEY. And in doing so, they help perpetuate the problem.

    This is the very definition of corporate social irresponsibility.

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