You’ve seen the images in advertisements over and over on television. A Toyota SUV turns off of a highway and streaks into a pristine desert. A Ford pickup sprays mud making a tight turn on a farm field. A Dodge pickup splashes through a rocky stream. And that’s just what you see before halftime of just about any televised college or professional football game.
Some ads and videos—like for Toyota’s Racing Division—are particularly egregious, boasting things like, “TRDs trucks conquer cities, jungles, mud and a few questionable shortcuts.”
But trucks shouldn’t be doing these things in these places. They should not be driving through streams or taking shortcuts through dunes. In real life, trucks that go hot-rodding on muddy forest roads like those we see on television typically create a giant mess.
Three decades ago, when I was working with the Sierra Club to try to pressure the leaders of the Massachusetts Military Reservation to clean up the contaminated groundwater that was flowing south into Falmouth, a club member told me that if an automaker wanted to advertise in Sierra, the group’s national magazine, it had to show a vehicle with all four wheels on a paved road. That’s a more responsible—but I guess less alluring—truck ad.
If you search the internet for old television ads, you see boxier-looking pickup trucks doing the same thing—climbing off-road over rocks and racing through streams. While the volume of advertising of all kinds today has increased dramatically—the average urban American now likely sees more than 5,000 ads a day—little fundamentally has changed. The messages that extol the virtues of driving where you want, when you want have been going on for a very long time.
It’s the repetition that scares me. In advertising, saying something over and over works. Switch ads up just a little bit and spread them out over a long time and they keep working. They create a new normal. A normal in which it’s okay for cars to spin donuts in a desert, or for trucks to blast through streams on hiking trails.
What other ideas that get repeated ad infinitum worm their way into our thinking?
My candidate for the messaging that has caused the most harm to our environment during the last 40 years is the claim—endlessly repeated like advertising by certain segments of our society—that government is a problem instead of the solution to our most-pressing challenges. This way of thinking has filtered its way up to people educated in public schools, trained at public universities, and who even get support from government grants. “I don’t trust the government to do anything right,” one acquaintance recently explained to me.
I don’t see it that way. Take the quality of the water we swim in. I grew up within sight of the Hudson River. My teenage friends and I spent idle hours (we had idle hours back then—but that’s a whole different environmental story) exploring the river’s banks and tidal sandbars. But swim we did not. At least not without incurring the wrath of our parents and admonitions that we’d have to go get a tetanus shot. Raw sewage from New York floated upriver on incoming tides.
Most of that is now history. A few weeks ago, when I took the train into Manhattan from my hometown, a train station billboard advertised a new riverside condominium development with a picture of a young couple with their young children and dog splashing in the river. That’s progress. Now, with water quality is good enough for people to swim at the majority of beaches up and down the river, clean water sells condos in ways that younger me would never have imagined.
This happened because New York City and other towns up and down the river invested billions of dollars to clean up the pollution flowing out of pipes from factories and sewage treatment plants. Governments at all levels contributed, but most of the money came from Washington. It wasn’t private philanthropists who stepped up. It wasn’t corporations that volunteered to fix their outfalls. It was government.
I can’t help but think that part of what we need to do to get back collectively to solving problems is to look more critically at the fire hose of advertising with which we—now on a minute-by-minute basis—are barraged.
But I also wonder if we need to take a page from advertising’s playbook and do a better job of telling stories about how we made progress in the past. Every day I walk out of my neighborhood onto public land the government bought. I breathe air made cleaner by government power plant emissions standards. I drive on government-built roads. I look up and see ospreys that rebounded because the government banned DDT. I turn on the tap and out runs safe, good-tasting, government-filtered water. The more we can tell ourselves these stories—over and over again if we have to—the more we and the environment will benefit.