It's one thing for a mass-market product to be attacked by a religious group. Or to be mocked by Hollywood crusaders. But to get it from both sides? That's not easy, so congratulations sport utility vehicle owners and manufacturers: You are the target of the most comprehensive anti-marketing effort in recent memory. Last year a Christian group called the Evangelical Environmental Network came out with an anti-gas-guzzling spot that asked, "What would Jesus drive?" And now comes a salvo that has gotten even more attention: Marginal pundit Arianna Huffington and friends, calling themselves the Detroit Project, have put together an ad that parodies an earlier government campaign linking drugs and terror; their spot says it's SUVs that fund al-Qaida. This is certainly a provocative gambit, but how successful is it? The two ads were slated to run Sunday, Jan. 12, in several major markets, and you can see them here, on the Detroit Project site.
In the spot titled "Talking Heads," various people in the role of SUV owners say things like "I helped hijack an airplane," and "I helped blow up a night club," and "I helped teach kids around the world to hate America," and even, "I sent our soldiers off to war." These comments are interspersed with defensive ones like, "It makes me feel safe," "Everybody has one," and, finally, "My life, my SUV." The spot closes with titles informing Detroit automakers that "America needs hybrid cars now." The ad called "George" focuses on a character of that name who buys gas to fill his SUV. A child narrates and innocent music plays as we meet the oil executive responsible for filling George's tank, and then see a map of the countries (Iraq, Saudi Arabia) where the executive's company acquired the necessary oil. "And these are the terrorists," the little girl says, as we see an image of machine-gun-wielding guys in the desert, "who get money from those countries every time George fills up his SUV." The closing titles: "Oil money supports some terrible things. What kind of mileage does your SUV get?"
These ads borrow their structure from the controversial anti-drug spots that debuted during last year's Super Bowl and drew a direct line from American drug use to murderous terrorism. (You can see those ads here.) Oddly, no one seems to have pointed out that Huffington and Co. are late to the party in borrowing from those ads in a style that makes a point about oil consumption. Last August, a "pedestrian rights and advocacy group" called Citystreets produced a campaign—a much better one, in fact—that included a 30-second spot called "Where Do Terrorists Get Their Money?" (See it here on the Citystreets site.)
Instead of focusing on SUVs, that ad interspersed quick-cut scenes of an apparent terrorist operation in progress with titles such as, "Fake I.D.: 1,500 gallons," "Box cutters: 1 gallon," and "Explosives: 600 gallons," before asking, "Where do terrorists get their money?" The question is answered by images of cars. "Every time you fill your tank," a title says, as we're treated to a shot of a trunk-load of machine guns, then the ominous warning, "Some of it might come back to you." (This spot borrows from the government ad called "AK-47," which in turn borrowed its structure from the famous MasterCard "Priceless" ads.) According to Harris Silver, the founder of Citystreets, that spot went out to a range of media outlets, and it was downloaded from the Web site 50,000 times. "Our idea was hijacked," he says, fuming.
And as pointed as the Detroit Project ads seem to be, the Citystreets spot was far more harsh—and more effective. The Citystreets people have a point of view that's both more acerbic and more consistent. The Detroit Project anti-SUV ads let all other drivers off the hook. Is somebody who uses an SUV to cart their family around town really that much worse than a joy rider in a sports car? Is there some minimum miles-per-gallon threshold we can cross and be absolved from all complicity in global terror?
This strategy, suggesting that the problem isn't really such a big one so long as we just stop driving Hummers, actually unites the Detroit Project with the Evangelical Environmental Network. Its own anti-gas-guzzling spot—see it here—featured soaring music and a sermonizing voice-over noting that "too many of the cars, trucks, and SUVs" that Americans drive pollute the air, and "maybe it's time to ask ourselves … what would Jesus drive?" Whether or not that question makes a whit of sense, it does offer the viewer an easy way out: The problem isn't big and systemic, it's just a matter of slightly more careful consumer habits.
The great challenge of anti-marketing is that it aims to make a change that's far more sweeping than just selecting a certain product. This is why a spot like the one from Citystreets is such a stick in the eye—the whole point is to give the viewer a serious jolt. It's no surprise that a religious group would go for a somewhat softer sell. But the Detroit Group campaign seems to split the difference, and in doing so it ends up not shocking so much as pandering. It's not an exhortation to think in a radically different way, but rather an invitation to point a finger and feel better about yourself in the process. And there's certainly nothing shocking about that.