Advertising of automobiles should be illegal

It’s Past Time

Let’s consider the products a person might consume legally that could do them harm. Smoking and drinking come to mind. The misuse of prescription drugs or firearms are two other ways people get hurt all the time.

Society acknowledges these potentially harmful activities; it governs what age one can smoke or drink, who can own or fire a gun, and how medication is distributed. It is careful about where and under what circumstances these products may be used: you can’t buy booze before 11 a.m. in Toronto bars, for example, and smoking indoors has been all but outlawed in many North American communities. Want to fire a gun? You will need a hunting license, or at least a designated firing range. Medication, of course, is only available by prescription, carefully regulated by professionals.

“Standards and guidelines” also apply to the advertising and promotion of these potentially harmful products. Advertising is mostly self-regulated, but by law Canadian television ads cannot show alcohol actually being consumed, while Big Tobacco, to the consternation of numerous arts organizations and others, has been severely curtailed in the way it can promote its products. Pharmaceutical companies dance around regulations about how they can market their products, while an ad that “glamorises or normalises guns and gun culture, or makes it appear that guns are fun or cool” would be outlawed according to U.K. guidelines. In fact it’s rare to see guns advertised in Canada at all, except in single-interest magazines, usually originating in the U.S. If you don’t like the way a product is advertised, you can complain to Advertising Standards Canada, and they will investigate your complaint.

But What About the Car?

It’s in the context of this climate of regulation that we come with some surprise to the subject of the automobile. Here is an industry that truly bears investigation. Like alcohol, tobacco and firearms, cars hurt people and their use is regulated, licensed and limited. Despite this, car use is linked to an “epidemic of obesity” in North America, as well as heart and lung disease. If you or a loved one are not among the 16,000-plus victims per year the Canadian Medical Association claims die prematurely from smog in Canada, your lungs are nonetheless compromised everywhere at street level by the car. The list of car-related emissions doesn’t stop at the exhaust pipe though; even “non-polluting” electric cars create a pall of rubber particles from their wheels, along with the fine metalic and mineral dust from brake pads. We all breathe this stuff in, and eat it on our fruits and vegetables. The spreading of salt on winter roads is another source of toxins to consider, an offshoot of car-drivers’ need to hide from the seasons. And of course, any list of “car victims” must include the 42,000 people, give or take a few thousand, who are killed in car crashes each year in North America–a jetplane load every day (where is the “war on terror” when you need it most?)!

Emissions from the production and use of automobiles are a prime factor in climate change. Significantly, those scientists who doubt the impact of human activity on the global climate are likely to have had their research paid for (according to a study published in Mother Jones magazine this year) by petroleum companies–another reason to be concerned about the car industry, needless to say.

Finally, there’s the whole question of urban sprawl, with its requisite desecration of farmland and wilderness, and its accompanying visual blight. None of this would be possible or “desirable” without the car.

Everyone Hates Cars.

In short, the automobile creates conditions and situations every bit as detrimental to society as any other “controlled” substance. Everyone recognizes the destructive patterns of “car culture:” anywhere you see one-way traffic calming mazes, speed humps, and cul-de-sacs, you see acknowledgement of the need to control the spread of the car. Even the most die-hard car fanatic would not want one running in the living room. Our city councillors, in their wisdom, have passed a law preventing drive-thru facilities near residential neighbourhoods. The language of Toronto’s Official Plan, and others, speaks of car “dependency,” a word that resonates with the notion of addiction (and cure).

Indeed, we have alcoholism and tobacco addiction, both considered medical conditions requiring treatment. Isn’t it time we looked at car dependency with the same lens? Why do we allow the automobile industry such wide latitude in its advertising? It is past time for government to take on the monster of car dependency in a serious way: it’s time to ban the advertisement and promotion of the automobile outright.

A Necessary Evil?

Now, some say this could never happen. They point to the thousands of jobs the auto industry provides. The auto may be “evil,” they say, but it’s a “necessary” evil.

But these observations beg the question about advertising. The debate is really about the big picture, the long view: what kind of society do we want to inhabit? To allow the advertisement of automobiles sends a message that overrides any bumf in any “Official Plan” of Toronto or anywhere. To allow promotions like the Molson Indy (unofficial slogan: “Drink Beer, Drive Fast”) overrides any message about healthy living (not to mention drinking and driving) promoted elsewhere by our government. Consider:

Children who grow up exposed to cigarette ads will think cigarettes are fine.

Ads showing people drinking and having fun undermine the message society wants to send about alcoholism.

The same holds for ads promoting cars. No matter what the day’s news tells kids about the ills of auto dependency, the accompanying 30-second fantasy or full-page newspaper ad showing the car as a “necessary fact of nature” delivers impressionable minds with a knockout punch that overrides reality.

So What?

And what will happen if car advertising is banned? Consider the following three questions: Will society (as we know it) cease to function? Will automobile companies go backrupt (any sooner?) Will ad agencies, TV, newspaper and other media need to find other source of commercial revenue?

We don’t have answers. We only know in the long run, if society is truly to live up to its war of words on car culture, those three questions deserve a “yes.” It will be a painful transition for some. The only question is truly, “when do we start?”

The Time to Start was Yesterday

It’s time for government at the highest levels to introduce a ban on automobile advertisements.

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