"War On Cars" Watch: GM Bashes Cycling, Apologizes

Edward Niedermeyer
by Edward Niedermeyer

The idea that environmentalists in this country are waging a “War On Cars” has gained some currency within the right wing in recent years, fueled by the Obama Administration’s increased emphasis on public transportation and cycling. Of course, statistically speaking, the car is proving more than capable of defending itself, as sales and ownership levels remain improbably robust (in per-capita and per-GDP terms) despite the recent “Carmageddon.” But GM waded into the fray anyway, running the anti-cycling ad seen above in several campus publications (via bikeportland.org), likely in hopes of fighting against the kuruma banare phenomenon that began with Japanese youth abandoning cars and has progressed to a full-blown national love affair with bicycles. But cyclists are a passionate bunch, and GM’s ill-advised ad prompted a torrent of Twitter protests ( see for yourself), eventually causing the automaker to apologize and pull the ad.

GM’s Tom Henderson tells the LA TimesThe content of the ad was developed with college students and was meant to be a bit cheeky and humorous and not meant to offend anybody. We have gotten feedback and we are listening and there are changes underway. They will be taking the bicycle ad out of the rotation…. We respect bikers and many of us here are cyclists.In other words, this is the ultimate proof that outsourcing ideas to consumers is lazy and ineffective. A good marketer would have instantly seen the problem with this entire ad concept and tossed it (and the Deans Lister who came up with it) as soon as he saw it. There are basically two reasons to bicycle: because you have to or because you want to. Those who have to bicycle can’t afford new cars, while those who want to cycle are going to be alienated by any slight to their passion… especially from a company like GM. In other words, an ad like this is not only ineffective, it exacerbates the nascent antipathy to automobiles among young people.And make no mistake: automotive ambivalence among young people is growing. As someone who lives in America’s cycling and hipster capital, I can confirm that carlessness is cool… and cycling as a lifestyle choice is even cooler. As I wrote two years agoHistorically, America’s youth have flocked to Automobiles as a tool of personal freedom, an escape pod from the world of adult responsibilities and a way to connect with other young people. Today, these crucial marketing values have been stood on their heads.If a young person does buy a car, it’s almost always because they need it for their job. Though debt, insurance, maintenance and speeding tickets are the real-life downsides of auto ownership, the crucial issue in the uncooling of cars is the image of car ownership as a a complex of obligations all of which add up to less freedom. The automobile has become a tool for connecting people to their responsibilities, a symbol of debt and talisman of that youth anti-icon, the beaten-down, middle-aged commuter. And what’s less cool than that?This perception has only increased in recent years, fueled by a cultural “perfect storm” of generational changes. Indeed, today I’m even less optimistic about the car’s cultural relevance than I was when I concludedAmerica will not stop being the giant, spread-out country in which cars are the major mode of transportation. But the fact that there are nearly as many cars as people in this great land means that the auto industry is ultimately a victim of its own success. Still, if the industry is able to connect with the values that are leading young people away from automobiles, there’s a chance to check this trend.But it won’t be easy, because young peoples’ expectations of automobiles are actually rising. If automakers are able to offer vehicles which can embody fun, freedom, practicality, efficiency and timeless design, there’s a chance to refocus the youth market’s desire onto automobiles… Recapturing the cool is a major task for the automotive industry, and fighting this perfect storm of cultural changes won’t be easy. This is a marketing, development, design, and technology challenge that makes getting consumers to consider GM look like, well, child’s play.And yet, ironically, here is GM flaunting its complete ignorance of this crucial cultural dynamic with a single ad. And not for the first time. A 2005 ad that ran in the Vancouver area displayed the same out-of-touch insecurity, bashing public transportation and offering a Chevrolet Cavalier as its alternative.

Despite GM’s recent breathless enthusiasm for marketing to the under-30 “Millenial” set, these two ads prove that the company’s ability to understand and market to young, car-ambivalent people hasn’t improved in the last six years. If anything, bashing bikes is worse than bashing public transportation because of the immense enthusiasm for cycling and its health and environmental benefits. The fact that a significant number of cyclists choose the two-wheeled lifestyle for political reasons make even a relatively minor slight from a multinational automaker all the more tone-deaf. Rather than mocking cyclists, automakers should be appropriating the bicycle’s cultural appeal with ads showing cars and bicycles coexisting in a youthful lifestyle.With Millenials on the verge of becoming the majority of the car market, GM needs a massive gut-check if it hopes to have a chance of understanding and addressing the “uncooling” of cars. A potent symbol of the social and economic reality of being a young person today, bicycles are fundamental to that understanding. In fact, I’d argue that bike rank second only to handheld devices as a symbol of youth culture. Cars, meanwhile are dropping off the list, not because of an environmentalist agenda or hostile White House but because of the changing conditions facing young people today. Until the car industry wakes up to that reality, blunders like this one are inevitable, further driving the wedge between the industry and the young people it’s desperate to reach.

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  • Amac Amac on Oct 13, 2011

    I resisted car ownership until the age of 42. The "cool" and "carefree" appeal of cycling lost its cachet a long time ago. Unless you cycle for leisure or are able to commute on bike paths or side streets, cycling in the city is just plain dangerous. I used public transit for decades but that too eventually became inadequate, and cash-strapped cities are having a hard time upgrading their transit systems to meet the demand. Having a car IS freedom and the benefits far outweigh the expense. Maybe one day I'll live someplace where I don't need a car, but until then...

  • Sprocketboy Sprocketboy on Oct 14, 2011

    As a hardcore cyclist, I am not bothered much by this ad and think it is foolish to make much of a fuss about it. On the other hand, the world's biggest producer of bicycles has enjoyed poking fun at GM with this: http://www.goinggoingbike.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2011/10/Giant-Ad.jpg Of course, Giant can afford to laugh. Unlike GM, it has made piles of money for the last decade.

  • FreedMike Well, y'all wanted a brown wagon...
  • Daveo We had it in NJ and don't in Florida. Can't tell you how many cars I'm behind in traffic that have no brake lights. I think it's necessary.
  • Tassos Is there any reason you could not put the ACTUAL 348 mile number in the TITLE of the damned article, so I would not need to read the whole thing to find out?
  • Tassos Honda is bleeding billions in order to keep this loser Acura alive.In the REST of the world, Identical vehicles to Acuras are just called HONDAS. Best example, the NSX! It was NEVER called an "acura" outside the US.
  • Cprescott Very expensive all terrain golf cart.