Advertising motor vehicles

Throughout the summer I will watch cricket on television if I am able to, and this summer I have seen a lot of it — and very good it has been, too. And I was perforce the victim of innumerable ads for motor vehicles. Since I have a longstanding road-safety connection I viewed these with a critical eye, and decided that most of them failed my own test: they showed drivers behaving badly.

Anyone connected with road safety will feel from time to time that he or she is simply on the losing end of a game against humanity. Something like 1500 people will be killed in 2014 on our roads or because of a motor vehicle that has left the road. Along with the deaths will come tens of thousands of serious injuries that cause people to go to hospital; some of them will have perpetual harm, like acquired brain injury, that greatly reduces the quality of their lives thereafter. One of my previous Ministers told me that every time a road death occurred he felt it like a pain in the gut. I believed him, because I can have a similar experience; it is as though we have failed to prevent the death, and are responsible.

There is a brighter side. Road deaths per 100,000 people have come down astonishingly, from around 30 in 1970 to around 6 now.  The cause has been a combination of better cars, tyres, roads and anti-crash devices, on the one hand, and new laws about seat-belt use, drink-driving, and speeds, on the other. Though it is hard to prove, I think there is a saner driving culture today than forty years ago, too. Children know about seat belts, and parents know about risk.

Nonetheless, I feel concerned whenever I see what I think is bad driving practice exemplified on the screen. What can anyone do about it? That same Minister told me — at least I thought he did — that the Australian ministers for road safety had a set of standards that they administered about the TV advertising of motor vehicles. I can’t find it, and I’m coming to the view that what he had said was that there was a set of standards and the ministers thought they were good ones.

The Federal Chamber of Automotive Industries (FCAI) does have a Voluntary Code of Practice for Motor Vehicle Advertising which you can find here. I think it is fine, as I read it, and there is an Advertising Standards Board (ASB) there to ‘assess compliance’ and review all public complaints. There are public complaints, and the Board deals with them. You can read the cases yourself, and there is no doubt that the ASB takes its role seriously, finding against the advertisers in many cases. What happens after that is harder to determine. The ads usually run for a brief period, so that by the time the complaint has been assessed, the ad series is possibly over.

I suppose that my best shot is to lodge my own formal complaint and see what happens. And I could do it, except that, as I read the Code, there is a lot of wriggle room. One ad. that I saw again and again showed a crew-cab utility pulling things out of dams, going quickly through a stream crossing and swerving in sand, in my view because it was going too fast. The Code has a section on unsafe driving, but my guess is that the advertiser would wriggle through my complaint. The creek crossing is not done at a really high speed, but safe practice in creek crossings is to go very slowly, just fast enough. Even if you have crossed this stream many times before, you don’t know what has occurred on the crossing since you were last there. I remember an incident in the first REDeX trial in 1954 where a camera crew asked one of the competitors who had crossed slowly to go through again and make a decent splash. He complied, made a great splash, and wrecked his transmission.

My beef is that advertisers by and large recognise the Code, but they also do their best to emphasise speed, manoeuvrability, and technical pizzazz, at the expense of safe and sensible driving. So they advertise up to the limit, trying to get away with it. And you’ll say, of course they do! They are there to sell cars, not to improve driving care. Yes, but, I say. The assumption built in to all these ads is that the car does all the thinking for you, or, if you like, that the driver has all the skills needed to navigate in these conditions. It ain’t necessarily so.

I don’t have a solution. Speed kills, but it also thrills, and we humans respond to thrill. Let me finish with another ad., which shows a father taking his family out in his new big 4WD. He races along with no consideration at all for his family, the passengers, and descends a steep and rocky mountain track, with big boulders, at a speed which throws the back-seat passengers, his children, off their seats. Returning to his home he pats the car. What his family would have thought about this episode is easy to imagine. OK, the 4WD can do it, but what sort of driver does that to his family?

I get easily irritated with these ads, because I think at once of fifteen hundred killed and the thousands injured, and feel that these ads have no place on the screens at all. Yes, I know, I’m a kill-joy…

Join the discussion 6 Comments

  • DaveW says:

    From the Gympie Times this morning: ‘Police Minister Jack Dempsey asked drivers to remember the Fatal Five – do not drink, do not speed, wear a seat belt, do not drive distracted and do not drive fatigued “‘. Perhaps ‘do not drive like a dickhead’ should be added.

    My understanding of the advertisers is that they are selling status more than ‘speed, manoeuvrability, and technical pizzazz’. Owning a machine that is perceived as fast or able to climb mountains is probably more important to men (and the ads you describe are invariably aimed at men) than actually doing so, at least if the vehicle is also expensive. I recently read of a study using men in expensive, mid-range and low-range cars to ask women for their phone numbers. Those in the expensive autos were three times as likely to be successful as those in economical models (and twice as likely as the mid-range). The auto ads aimed at women that I have seen seem to be selling fashion accessories rather than performance vehicles.

    I wonder how much of the reduced road toll is due to an aging population of drivers? Aren’t most road fatalities still concentrated in young drivers? Except for the rich and the drug dealers, young drivers probably can’t afford the vehicles advertised at the cricket. One way to compensate for this disadvantage is demonstrate prowess by doing things to excess and this urge is probably not controllable by legislation.

    So, I’m not convinced that the ads are all that subversive of road safety, but the ones showing SUVs bashing their way through a wilderness certainly drive me up the wall.

  • Mike O'Ceirin says:

    Dept. of Infrastructure and Regional Development

    “Since record keeping commenced in 1925, there have been over 180,000
    deaths on Australia’s roads. However, road trauma levels have declined
    substantially over the last four decades, despite considerable
    population growth and a threefold increase in registered motor vehicles.
    During this period, the number of road deaths per year has fallen from
    3,798 deaths in 1970 to 1,193 in 2013”

    Victorian deaths

    “Smoking is the leading cause of preventable death in Victoria. On average out of every 1000 deaths in Victoria:
    119 are caused by smoking
    24 are caused by alcohol (including road deaths caused by drinking)
    12 are caused by road deaths (including road deaths caused by drinking)
    3 are caused by other drugs, including heroin.”


    Deaths by suicide

    The most recent Australian data (ABS, Causes of Death, 2009)
    reports deaths due to suicide at 2,132. That equates to 6 deaths by
    suicide a day, or one every four hours

    However, this is under-reported and sector estimates are that this figure could be as high as 2,500 a year

    The overall suicide rate in 2009 was 10.2 per 100,000 in Australia (ABS, Causes of Death, 2009)

    This compares to an overall suicide rate of 11.0 for USA in 2002, 11.7 for New Zealand in 2004, and 7.0 for the UK in 2004*

    The highest suicide rates in the world are 34.3 in the Russian Federation in 2004 and 27.7 in Hungary in 2003*

    Men in Australia are four times more likely to die by suicide than women

    Indigenous people are four times more likely to die by suicide than non-indigenous people

    The most recent data (ABS, Causes of Death, 2009) shows that
    more people die from suicide in Australia than in road related transport
    deaths (1,151)

    The most recent data (ABS, Causes of Death, 2009) shows that
    more people die from suicide in Australia than from skin cancer (1,837)”

    I think Don you have been tricked by the Government and Media hysteria about road safety. Suicide being double road deaths plus many other causes of death I am not concerned. Any car company advertising they sell sensible safe cars will go out of business.

  • John Morland says:

    There are still many dickheads on the road, and many driving around in Canberra.

    Roads are a lot better today. The Hume highway is finally dual carriage way all the way. I have heard a story (perhaps a myth) that it could have been dual carriage way shortly after WW2. The Americans still had all their road making equipment and offerred to then Labor government (not sure whether is Curtin, Forde or Chiefly) dual carriage H’way Sydney to Melbourne for US $10 million – what a bargain! The Government declined!! So for the next 67 years Australia’s busiest h’way was single carriage way in many parts causing untold number of deaths, injuries and economic drag and far more expensive to upgrade later.

    Save $10 million to spend billions later!

    Cars are so much better, I shudder at the earlier model Holdens and Fords were making, how long the Australian car industry got away with making death traps for so long through tariif and quota protection. Finally they HAD to come kicking and screaming installing seat belts, improved braking -disc brakes (from drums), better suspension and dampening – 4 coil suspension and later independant rear suspension from rear cart leaf springs, double acting/ gas shock absorbers (from mushy single acting oil shockies), more precise steering, then ABS, airbags, traction control and now electronic stability control.

    Despite airbags, seat belts are still important, I have heard of one report mentioning after Princess Dianna’s death all occupants would have survived had they been wearing seatbelts, the multitude of airbags in that Merc was insufficient to save them.

  • GenghisCunn says:

    I have to say that since turning 70, I’ve pretty well given up my “boy-racer” driving style. I’ve historically driven fast, but with high awareness and concentration, racing-driver reflexes and respect for other drivers, and have driven safely – I’ve noticed over the years that those who drive fast usually have higher awareness and more regard for other drivers. I had a minor injury accident in Asian Turkey in 1970 when I had the choice of driving my Mini-Cooper into a gorge or having a head-on collision on a single-lane bridge. I chose the collision.

    I did have one bad accident, which continues to affect me 49 years later. I had been riding a motorcycle in a suicidal manner. A work friend organised a safe-driving talk by the the Chief Superintendent of the Metropolitan Police Driving School one evening. The next day, I was driving in accordance with the Chief’s eminently sensible advice and someone drove a car straight across a main road and into my leg, causing near-fatal injuries. The upside, vide Mike O’Ceirin, was that I had been close to suicide, faced with death (the medics thought I’d die; I knew I wouldn’t) I decided it was better to live. C’est la vie.

    Not, Don, that I in any way disagree with concern for road safety.

    As for the cricket, you wrote that “and very good it has been, too.” Well, as a Pom who was at the ‘Gabba, I can only say “The horror, the horror!”

  • John BENNETT says:

    “I shudder at the earlier model Holdens and Fords were making, how long the Australian car industry got away with making death traps for so long through tariif and quota protection.”

    They got way with stealable cars for so many years, until the Japs showed them the way with electronic access systems.

    I have just bought a Hyundai i40, and I have not seen a more finely assembled vehicle. Designed in Germany and manufactured and assembled in South Korea, it is a fine example of mechanical knowledge.

    It is the most obedient car I have driven – it hugs the road so well, and obeys every driving command.

    It is little wonder Oz lost the way in car manufacture.

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