This Just In: The Media Business Is Auto-Dependent Too

auto_advertising.jpgThink web sites are saturated with car ads? The internet’s got nothing on local TV.

The graphic on the right comes from a recent Wall Street Journal article (preview only) on car makers’ attempts to curb their advertising budgets. The amount of money pouring into the media from the auto industry is staggering. Analysts predict that spending on car ads will total $15 billion this year (the good news: it peaked at $24 billion in 2004). Declining or not, these ad dollars deliver an indispensable chunk of revenue across the media spectrum.

The most car-dependent media formats are the local type, especially TV stations. And who else is going to cover stories on pedestrian improvements, bicycle infrastructure, Summer Streets, or — I dunno — congestion pricing? Imagine if bike companies and transit providers could sink billions into local media markets, or conversely, if car makers spent next to nothing… how different would transportation coverage be?

  • Larry Littlefield

    Forget the effect on news coverage. The drumbeat of auto advertising far exceeds in minutes any broadcast of transportation news, or news at all. The ads themselves are what influence people’s values.

    They presents a message over and over again about what a good life is, particularly since most go beyond a simple tabulation of the competing features of each motor vehicle. Social status, belonging, fulfillment, a rite of purchase into adulthood, a connection to family members, each an only be had on four wheels.

    As someone who watches little network television aside from sports, I’m surprised the percentages are that low. I would have thought the auto industry plus chemical sex aids account for 100%.

  • I watch exactly one hour of TV a day, the CW11 news. Even with this limitation, the exposure to car ads is staggering. It’s not uncommon to see the same ad more than once — within the same program!

    The audio is louder and more abrasive than any other kind of ad. (I should explain that all TV and radio broadcasts are subject to volume limits, but whereas programming typically has a range of volume, some ads are cranked up to the top of the allowable limit.)

    Coverage of livable streets issues varies. Sometimes it’s pretty evenhanded. But congestion pricing was a notable exception. CW11 reporters covered it by sticking mics into car windows — I don’t recall a single interview with someone using the subway. TA got maybe one soundbite in month after month of negative stories. CW11 might as well have had the scripts written by Ford and Toyota.

  • I think Larry has a good point. The ads themselves get out MOST of the message. With fewer car ads I wonder what will replace them?

  • I never thought about it until I was in Europe and saw an add for a bicycle on TV. Ever seen an add for a bicycle on TV in the USA? I don’t think so. They don’t even exist here! I work at a major broadcast network, and 1/3 of the adds we get in are selling cars & trucks. The rest are mostly drugs, computers, lawn-care/weed killer – or anything else that depends on the free-flow of cheap oil in the US. Meanwhile in the EU the networks are now airing publicly funded bicycle promotion adds.

    People are brainwashed by a lifetime of loud car adds.

    According to the A.C. Nielsen Co., the average American watches more than 4 hours of TV each day (or 28 hours/week, or 2 months of nonstop TV-watching per year). In a 65-year life, that person will have spent 9 years glued to the tube.

    Percentage of households that possess at least one television: 99
    Number of hours per day that TV is on in an average U.S. home: 6 hours, 47 minutes

    Number of 30-second TV commercials seen in a year by an average child: 20,000
    Number of TV commercials seen by the average person by age 65: 2 million
    Percentage of survey participants (1993) who said that TV commercials
    aimed at children make them too materialistic: 92
    Rank of food products/fast-food restaurants among TV advertisements to kids: 1
    Total spending by 100 leading TV advertisers in 1993: $15 billion

  • Larry Littlefield

    The bicycle companies are too small to advertize succesfully.

    So are individual beef ranchers. So what did the U.S. Department of Agiculture do? Got them to accept a small feel per pound, used by their non-profit to tell us Beef is What’s for Dinner.

    Maybe the bike manufacturers could try the same thing. After all, people may be so numb to the car ads that a very small number of bike ads could shock them into paying attention.

  • Lee Watkins

    > “The bicycle companies are too small to advertize succesfully.”

    Right, how’s a $1 Billion company supposed to afford airtime these day… what with gas prices and all…

    “Giant, the maker of international bicycle brands like Boulder, Yukon and Iguana, is reaping the profits. The company, which produced 5.5 million bikes in 2007, expects to pull in $1 billion in sales this year, up 10 percent, it says.

    Giant’s story is typical of the $61 billion global bicycle industry, which is enjoying unprecedented growth as cycling becomes a major recreational sport and lifestyle option in many Western countries.”

    Actually, almost every brand of Chinese-made bikes are all made in the same few factories, by the same workers. They just slap different labels on them depending which label they are being marketed under. Just a few huge modern facilites produce nearly all of the bikes exported. If you go to Taichung, Taiwan, the #2 location, you will see the same thing.

    “The United States remains China’s top market. Last year, U.S. importers brought in 17.3 million Chinese-made bikes—96 percent of total bicycle imports in 2007. In other words, 24 of every 25 bicycles sold in the United States are made in China.”

    I guess I just find it odd that at a time when sales of bikes are exploding, and all the products come from the same small number of manufactures, that there is almost no attempt at TV or newspaper advertising in their #1 market. Keep in mind that China’s future economic growth is directly linked to consumerism in the USA, and economic growth in the USA is most certainly doomed if we do not move quickly away from dependence on oil for transportation. Like I said, it just seems odd.

  • vnm

    Imagine what the streets would be like if bike and trains had as much ad airtime as cars. There’s a good case to be made for banning car advertising. (Of course, the free market seems to be doing that anyway since all the automakers are slashing their ad budgets as the article notes.)

    [T]he Public Health Cigarette Smoking Act of 1969 was signed into law by President Richard Nixon, on April 1, 1970. It ended cigarette ads on TV and radio forever. When the last cigarette commercial ran during Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show” (an ad for Virginia Slims) at 11:59 p.m., Jan. 1, 1971, roughly 44 percent of American men and 31 percent of American women smoked cigarettes, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Today, the CDC estimates that those numbers have dropped to 23.7 percent for men and 18.5 percent for women, respectively.

  • Bobby Cuza

    Ben, I strongly take issue with the assumption that advertisers somehow dictate news coverage. Sure, there have been embarrassing exceptions (enough to fill a whole book, Ben Bagdikian’s The Media Monopoly) — and I tend to agree with Larry that the ads themselves are what truly shapes people’s values — but I’ve worked for a number of print and TV news outlets over the years and never once seen the wall between the advertising and editorial sides breached. Advertisers don’t tell reporters and editors what to cover. They just don’t. They don’t even try — if they did, believe me, they’d find a whole bunch of journalists screaming bloody murder.

  • Niccolo Machiavelli

    They don’t have to Bobby, the viewer is not really all that tuned in to the distinction and lots of time is committed to the ads. The news pieces flit from subject to subject every 20 seconds and the ads pour out relentlessly and repetitively.

    Sometimes, often in fact, the ads shill for a way of life that dovetails neatly with the coverage. Take NY1 and Daily News jihad against the MTA for example, please. It fits so neatly with the acres of advertisements that the Daily News runs for automobiles and the Poconos lifestyle. Feeding the readers and viewers fears and distrust of mass transit institutions while offering up the solution of escape (Ford Escape) and tranquility along a lakeside development near Sroudsbourg. NY1 (the Cable Company, as if they know what good service is) builds fear and loathing in public institutions by appointing themselves the judge, jury and hangman for transportation policy distracting attention from their own private monopoly.

    Its a neat fit so much so that the editorial content can pretend an objective isolation from the marketing force with a straight face. Its like the difference between collaboration and coordination. Collaboration means working together and coordination means having the same objective.

  • vnm

    Bobby, I’ve always enjoyed your transit coverage on NY1 (it’s really you, right?)

    Actually, NY1 doesn’t have that many car ads compared to other channels I watch, which makes sense since so many New Yorkers don’t own cars.

    But when I think of this phenomenon, I don’t think about some advertiser sitting down with a reporter and saying: “You have to file some stories that glorify the car. BWAHAHAHAHAH!!!” It’s more subtle.

    I think it is like this: The NY Times needs more ad revenue. They realize that many of their ads come from car dealers and automakers. So they set up special sections with news coverage about cars, like the Automobiles section. Then the Escapes section, where you have articles about how much fun it is to drive your SUV through the outback and what kind of cup holders does it have, etc.

    Now we have news content generated based on the advertising it can attract. How many articles about the harmful effects of carbon monoxide emissions, or the high death rate from car crashes in an auto-dependent society, would you find in such a section before the advertisers would balk? If you look at the amount of ad space in the NYTimes’s “automobiles” section, there are pages and pages of ads. Meanwhile, the Metro Section is all news, with no ads. To “follow the money,” as Bob Woodward’s mantra goes, the papers adjust what they write about.

    Many paper have “Automobiles” or “Cars” sections, but few have “Environmental” or “The Joys of Walking” pages. I guess I think of this as more of a print phenomenon than a TV thing. But as other commenters have noted, with TV, the constant bombardment of car ads depicting beautiful driving ranges out in the country, without any traffic, sends a promise of fun but in reality, driving is a headache and a nerve frazzler and you don’t get where you’re trying to go as quickly as the never-ending ads would you believe. Then of course, TV car ads make you think you can achieve “status,” with the car you drive.

  • Larry Littlefield

    There is a bigger issue here with all these ads. It really is indoctrination that the whole value of your life is the things you buy. It isn’t a conspiracy — no conspiracy could work this well — but a confluence of interests.

    And the absence of alternative information, whether from faith or family, both of which have been in decline, replaced by goods and services bought in the marketplace.

  • Marty Barfowitz


    I’ve worked at a few major media companies including the one that employees you, and I have yet to meet an editor or executive producer who does not have a very good idea of what his advertisers like and don’t like.

    I have only very rarely seen the business guys or publisher drop a mandate on the heads of the editorial guys. As you note, that tends not to go over very well.

    The collusion between editorial and advertising takes place on a much more subtle and voluntary level. The style or music or TV editors go to the same parties and events as the people that they write about. They get themselves on the same page — literally. This is no big secret or conspiracy or anything. This is just how media products are produced and paid for. It happens on the hard news side of the organization too.

  • Ian Turner


    As others have pointed out, the controls and forces on mass media are more subtle than this article might suggest. But they are certainly there; media in this country are run for a profit, and media organizations that do not make a profit end up acquired or bankrupt. In order to be profitable, news organizations must avoid offending a number of different constituencies, the top two of which are advertisers and those who provide access to news (read: the government). This is important: Piss off your advertisers and you won’t be able to pay the bills; piss off the current administration and you’ll find yourself excluded from press conferences, military video, leaks, and the like.

    Herman & Chomsky go into this issue in great detail in their seminal work, Manufacturing Consent. Though published in 1988, the book maintains its relevancy today. As the authors note, it’s not that the editor-in-chief of the Wall St. Journal is forced to kowtow to business interests in some kind of way; rather, it’s that Thomson (or anyone else) would not be named editor-in-chief unless he or she already possessed an inherent disposition in the same direction as the paper’s business interests. This certainly applies as much to auto advertising as to anything else.

  • Ian Turner

    As an addendum, even Streetsblog is subject to the same pressures mentioned in Manufacturing Consent. Though the editorial board of the blog may have theoretical independence, you can be sure that if Aaron Napperstek decided tomorrow that more and wider highways were the way to go, and wrote about it, he would not last long as editor-in-chief. Even if the Open Planning Project were to keep him in place, such a move would kill the entire organization; donors would turn away, and the OPP would find itself out in the cold. Bankruptcy would quickly ensue.

  • misterbadexample

    Giant, at a billion $ a year, can’t afford a national tv campaign. Neither can Trek or Specialized. Even in the kids’ markets, bicycle companies can’t match the ad dollars from McDonalds and Mars candy.
    I have seen bike ads for Cervelo during the Tour de France. If US bike events like Leadville and RAAM ever got heavy mainstream coverage, the tv ads would follow. Maybe when bike races supplant NASCAR…

  • RecumbentMan

    Sorry, but the dominance of automotive advertising directly controls news decisions. The employees of media companies have all bought into the Happy Motoring paradigm. The fact that up to a quarter of their paycheck depends on those big splashy Ford Expedition ads has to be on their radar–media people can count ad pages or commercial minutes.

    Which is why almost no one in US media has given more than a few minutes (or column inches) of coverage in the past few years to the issue of Peak Oil. They’ve surrendered on Global Warming (although it took a lot of time and effort). But Peak Oil makes the Happy Motoring paradigm obsolete. Who cares about GM’s new model lineup for 2009 if there’s a chance there’s no gas to run your purchase?

    I’ve written to newspaper editors for multiple years in response to clueless articles/op-eds about drilling our way out of high gas prices or building new airports or parking facilities or more highways. the letters don’t get printed. Because (I suspect) the Friday edition of NY Newsday that treats Peak Oil as a foregone conclusion is the last Friday Newsday that will come with its 80-page Auto Buying supplement.

  • christine

    Now we are getting to the heart of the issue . Remember tobacco advertising… Beer advertising… now gaz guzzlers advertising is next

    Advertising time on each station should work the same way as “fleet average consumption” or the “emission trade” . This would ensure responsible advertising and credits could be bought with mass transit/bicycle /ped safety advertising funded by car companies..

  • PCC

    Contrast the $15 billion spent on American car ads in 2008 with the $6 billion that Americans spent on bicycles (and accessories, and everything else) in 2007. And remember: if you really, truly needed something, you wouldn’t need advertising to tell you that.



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