Sizing Up The Competition

Hanging out at the Copenhagenize Consulting office is making me think a lot about how you brand and market a product. The product we think about is bicycling and we’re mainly trying to compete with car driving. For the record, I’m not a car-hater. I’m really not. Vehicles are very useful and they’re essential for many professions. A carpenter, for example, would have a hard time transporting lumber, tools, and a table saw to a job site on a bicycle. (Although, according to Mikael, there are plenty of bicycling carpenters,electricians, and other tradesmen in Copenhagen and beyond.)

The vast beauty of the rural American landscape is often best (or most effortlessly) accessed while road tripping, preferably while blasting Tom Petty’s Free Fallin’ or some other equally quintessential American tune. Cars are an important part of our transportation system; I just happen to think they’re an oversold product in urban America. There are many cities like Basel, Switzerland and Dresden, Germany that have almost an equal split between walking, cycling, public transportation, and private vehicles. There are places like Copenhagen and Amsterdam where cycling is more popular than driving and then there’s Delhi, India where there are 48 officially recognized  modes of transportation (apparently different types of rickshaws constitute different modes).

The personal vehicle has a transportation mode monopoly in all but a few American cities. Why do Americans drive so much?  We could point at the urban planners and politicians who–under influenced by the car companies–allowed sprawling, one mode cities to be built in the first place. But, what about the consumers of transportation? Consumers have a say. We drive demand.

In general, it seems that American consumers are pretty happy–or at least complacent–about leading car-centric lifestyles. It takes years of convincing to get Americans to approving legislation to fund public transportation. We don’t get angry when our governors approve 3.6 billion dollar transportation budgets that don’t even mention pedestrians or bicycles. We allow our federal government to bail car companies out rather than letting market forces run their course. Americans don’t even like to get out of our cars to eat meals. We invented the drive-thru restaurant and 19 percent of all meals and snacks are consumed in the privacy of our cars.

Some people say that Americans love cars. Why do we love cars?  Are we sure we really love cars?

I’ve been watching a lot of YouTube videos of car commercials trying to figure it out. It seems like car commercials are effective at making us forget about reality. The commercials usually take place in remote, people-free places and motoring is portrayed as either an exciting, traffic-free adventure or a meditative, traffic-free relaxation session. Traffic-free is key. Sometimes the professional drivers behind the wheel make turns and go at speeds that would be incredibly dangerous–and illegal–for an average driver on an average road. I typed “car commercial + speed” into You Tube and this Dodge Challenger commercial was the first thing that came up, but there are hundreds of examples of what I’m talking about.  Watch this video and think about whether you’d want your teenage kid–or anyone you share the road with for that matter–driving like this.

Sure, this commercial takes place in a desert not on a road, but really–when was the last time you went driving in a desert? Personally, I run very few errands in the desert.

The marketing team that sat around a conference table thinking up that Dodge commercial probably wanted us to think about freedom. Freedom from responsibility. Freedom from speed limits, traffic laws, traffic, yielding to pedestrians at crosswalks, needing to fill up your gas tank while running late, driving around looking for parking while running late, paying for parking tickets, paying speeding tickets, getting your emissions tested, renewing your tabs, asking a friend to drive you to the impound lot, getting your oil changed, vacuuming pretzels crumbs out from between the seats, fishing out old fast food containers stuck under the seat, comparison shopping for a new car insurance plan, rotating your tires, replacing the windshield wipers that haven’t worked right in months, refilling the wiper fluid, finally taking the car to the mechanic because of that weird noise, and the list goes on… Owning a car is one huge, expensive set of responsibilities, but the Dodge marketing team is smart. They didn’t want us to think about any of that while we were considering car ownership. They wanted us to think about freedom.

The more car commercials I watched, the more I wondered about how they may impact people’s perceptions about what they’re entitled to do when they get behind the wheel of a car. For example, parking is always available in car commercials. In one commercial, a woman leaves a hair salon in the middle of a dense urban area and her Jeep is parked right in front of the salon. There are no other cars on the street so she doesn’t even have to inch out of the spot or wait for passing traffic, she just zooms off with the top down and her hair looks great. What car consumers seem to forget is that–if they live in an urban area–they will likely (or should) pay thousands of dollars each year to park that car in the places they want to drive it. Think about how much people pay per square foot for office or living space–why should it be any different for a car? Expecting free parking in 21st century cities is like expecting free rent from your landlord. More and more enlightened urban planners are acknowledging that free parking and minimum parking requirements for new developments “act like a fertility drug for cars.”

The car companies have done a brilliant job hiding the true cost of car ownership from consumers. According to the Dept. of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, 15 percent of household expenditures go towards car ownership costs.  Americans spend more annually on cars than on food.

The quality of driving in car commercials, as I noted before, is not all that safe in my opinion. Advertising clearly influences our behavior; that’s why the United States regulates how tobacco products are marketed.  We had fairly good evidence that cigarettes were killing people, so we decided Mad Men advertisers working for tobacco companies couldn’t have free reign on our minds anymore. Here’s something crazy that I’ve been thinking about.  We know, for certain, that cars and the people who drive them take thousands of people’s lives every year. Guess how many American’s died in traffic fatalities in 2009? 33,808. That number shocked me. In the late 90s and early 2000s that number was consistently above 40,000. The recession has resulted in less driving and hence fewer traffic fatalities, but there are still close to 700 Americans dying in or as a result of cars–every single week. The United States has more traffic fatalities per 100,000 inhabitants than any other developed country in the world. Our traffic fatality rate is almost exactly on par with countries like Cambodia, El Salvador, and Bangladesh.

All these deaths are just accidents though. Right? Well, no, all of these accidents–on some level–are the result of bad driving. In fact, the British Medical Journal recently announced that it was no longer going to use the word accident when referring to deaths that were caused by car drivers. They said that accidents are “often understood to be unpredictable” and thus unpreventable. In reality though, nearly all car-related deaths are very preventable. Car drivers routinely speed and drive while exhausted, not quite sober, or intoxicated. More and more car drivers are simply in a state of constant distraction dialing phone numbers, talking, texting, responding to e-mails, eating messy burritos, and changing the playlist. The human brain is incredibly bad at multitasking and driving, even though we think of it as second nature, is actually a pretty complex task for our brains. The more you casually engage in this complex, potentially fatal task–the more likely you are to die. Here’s a scary statistic from Tom Vanderbilt’s exquisitely researched book, Traffic:

If you drive an average of 15,500 miles per year, as many Americans do, there is a roughly 1 in 100 chance you’ll die in a fatal car crash over a lifetime of 50 years driving.

He got these numbers from the US DOT.  I looked up the data and crunched the numbers myself because I found these odds hard to believe at first. What’s really interesting–and not at all surprising–is that if you drive less you’re less likely to die in a car accident. An insurance research firm called Quality Planning Corporation did a study of one million drivers over an 8 month period and found that doctors and real estate agents have very high crash risks compared to other professionals. Why? Again, an excerpt from Traffic:

Exposure matters, which is seemingly why real estate agents, always driving from house to house, showed up high on the list. Doctors drive a lot, often in urban settings, often with a certain urgency, perhaps dispensing advice via cell phone.

The firm found that pilots have a very low car crash risk because they are in the air flying so much of the time. Part of the reason the United States has such a high traffic fatality rate per 100,000 people compared to other developed countries is because we drive a lot more than people in most other countries. Vanderbilt also explains that Americans who live in the exurbs (“extra-urban” areas beyond the suburbs) typically have a higher risk of death than people who live in “dangerous” urban cores. Why? Exurb residents spend a lot more time driving than urban dwellers. Exposure matters.

I also became curious while watching all these car commercials about what percentage of commercials portray drivers following all traffic laws.  For example, I’m quite certain that it’s illegal to try and kill pedestrians with your car.  Even if the pedestrians are “the enemy.”

Cars are dangerous. They kill the people who drive them and they kill cyclists and pedestrians on the roads. Cars are also very expensive to own. I didn’t even get into all the negative externalities cars have on our environment, waistline, and international politics.  Yet, despite all this, Americans love cars.

Or do we?

Either way, the marketing departments at car companies should be applauded. They’ve done an amazing job selling their product to American consumers.

However, as a true freedom-loving American, my kudos are going to the Miller High Life marketing department.


15 thoughts on “Sizing Up The Competition

  1. Great post. Excuse me but I must nitpick. Since your post is about advertising and how it affects people’s thinking, I have to point out that you use the word “vehicle” a lot. A vehicle can be a spaceship or a bicycle or a car, but on American bike blogs it’s often used to mean a car as opposed to a bicycle. Even though it can be both!

    Why not just say “car”? Saying vehicle makes the car sound like something much more advanced and diverse, like a space shuttle or a TGV train. People seem to think that if the car has seven seats and two of them are removable, or if it has an unenclosed cargo area at the back, it’s a whole new class of … vehicle. But it’s not. It’s still a car. This stick-on diversity of calling it vehicle is silly especially since the problem with traffic today is that there’s a huge LACK of diversity — it’s just cars, cars, cars!

    So, please. If you mean “car”, just say “car”! And if it gets repetitive to say “car”, maybe that’s a hint!

    • Hey Erik. Thanks for checking out Shift and great point. I think you’re right that Americans have a lot of terms for cars–car, vehicle, SUV, truck, mini-van, Prius…but, yes, they’re all just cars. Sometimes I get tired of using the same word over and over again, so I switch between using the word ‘car’ and ‘vehicle’, but I’ll try just using ‘car’ going forward. CAR CAR CAR CAR CAR. Boring.

      But that’s your point, right!?

    • In the US, “vehicle” has a legal definition. We do have 70% of the world’s lawyers for 5% of the world’s population after all. Bikes and trains are not vehicles under the legal definition because one doesn’t provide its own propulsion (bike) and the other travels on a fixed track (train).

      I got a ticket for an “unattended vehicle”, which was my bike locked up outside of an airport. I contested it and won on the basis of the police code definition of a vehicle.

  2. Regarding the needs of a carpenter or other trades-person…
    Think of how many of these professionals are unable to do all the work they could do in a day because they are stuck in the congestion caused primarily by individuals who could be traveling by other means, or are certainly traveling average 1.2 to a car that holds 4. It would be interesting to survey how much time the tradespeople of Copenhagen sit stuck in traffic versus those of Seattle.

    • It is interesting to note that in London (England), a city which suffers badly from congestion, that tradesman (or that be tradespeople) are turning to cargo bikes to get about as a way of beating the congestion. See this example. They are doing it for sound business reasons, using cargo bikes cuts their costs and they can provide a reliable service to their customers because they don’t get stuck in traffic.

      • Kim–Interesting and thanks for sharing the link.

        When I checked out London on my bike I often felt like the cyclists were the only people moving. The cars and buses were just stuck (usually honking at each other). I spoke with a friend in London who also cycles and she says she feels relatively safe cycling around the city despite the incomplete cycling infrastructure because the traffic congestion is so bad. Cars are moving slow enough that they aren’t as much as a threat. Traffic congestion costs England billions of pounds each year in wasted time and fuel–so that’s bad–but I guess there is an upside in that it makes cycling safer and more rewarding!

  3. I think many would strongly disagree that congestion makes cycling safer and more rewarding. Reading any of the London cycling blogs gives a pretty unpleasant picture. The following articles from Cycleoffutility and Cyclelondoncity give a good flavour of things:

    Great blog by the way! Thanks to Mikael for the link from

    • I guess the only reason I said it was rewarding is because you’re the only thing moving. I was just in London for a few days and if I lived there I would probably find the situation really frustrating. Thanks for the links.

  4. Pingback: Shifting the North American Perspective « Bicycle Geek

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  6. Nice work Christine.however it seems that you forgot to mention how great of drivers pilots are and how that contributes to their lack of deadly accidents.

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