Acura: Santa Is Real, and You Better Watch Out

If you tuned in to the news earlier this week, you likely heard that in 2011 U.S. road fatalities dropped to their lowest level since 1949. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the media practically consider it cause for celebration that *just* 32,000 or so people were killed in motor vehicle crashes last year. Maybe that’s understandable. In the last six decades, since the time before seat belts and padded dashboards were standard equipment, it’s the best we’ve been able to manage.

While everyone wants to get that 32,000 closer to zero, for some time it’s been socially acceptable to market American passenger vehicles as race cars. Though on one hand auto companies tout safety features that have helped reduce driver and passenger deaths, many if not most ads emphasize horsepower and high-speed handling. As if every family sedan doubled as a rally racer, and every motorist, possessing the keys to that sedan, could pass for a highly-skilled stunt driver.

A new seasonal campaign from Acura is a particularly egregious example. In these ads, celebrities including Dr. Phil and Santa Claus tear through urban streets, their eyes barely on the road as they zig-zag between lanes and speed around corners while lecturing passengers, whom they have plucked from shopping for Christmas decorations, on the finer points of decking the halls. “Listen to the voice of reason,” goes the tagline.

These commercials go a step further than the “need for speed” fantasies conveyed in much auto advertising. The hook here is that the celebs are driving fast, heedless of their environment. Watch the relieved couple hug when Dr. Phil drops them off at the Christmas tree stand. Hear the tires chirp when Santa backs across a sidewalk. Acura is promoting reckless driving. That’s the joke.

This might be all in good fun, except that in 2010 speeding was a factor in 31 percent of fatal traffic crashes in the U.S., crashes that killed some 10,000 people. (The NHTSA says data on 2011 speed-related crashes will be released Friday.)

A few days ago in Brooklyn, two drivers collided on a neighborhood street. At the moment of impact at least one of them was traveling with sufficient speed that one vehicle, a Jeep Cherokee, flipped over. Before it came to a stop, the Jeep slammed into Chenugor Dao, her husband, daughter and 1-year-old granddaughter, who were standing on a nearby corner. Dao was killed.

The second car, driven by a man who was either speeding or ran a stop sign, according to police, before he crashed into the Jeep, happened to be an Acura MDX — the same model we see ripping around corners and plowing through crosswalks, with Dr. Phil supposedly at the wheel, in one of these jocular ads.

Given tens of thousands of preventable traffic deaths every year, maybe it’s time for car companies and their hucksters to send “Closed course, do not attempt” to the scrapyard.

  • Larry Littlefield

    Or for one of those SNL commercial parodies, with a bunch of pedestrians and cyclists thoughtlessly run over.

  • Andy B from Jersey

    The lower traffic fatality rate is likely more a factor of cellphones (ability to contact 911 immediately) better emergency medical services response (helicopters)  along with better emergency medicine. And yes, cars are being made much safer which is undoubtedly a good thing and innovations in highway safety for vehicle occupants have also reduced fatalities.

    But I’d like to see what the crash rates are.  Have they gone down to?  Have they gone down per vehicle mile?  I think that is the stat that we should be looking at as it would help normalize the advances I mention above.

    Also, if you’ve been paying attention, bike and pedestrian crash and fatality rates have been up or holding steady.  That would seem to indicate that crash rates overall are holding steady. (I haven’t looked at the report in detail.)

    And yes, I find these commercials morally reprehensible.  It’s one small step removed from glorifying drinking and driving.  It is one thing to show a car being driven fast on a race course or over a dry lake bed but its another thing all together to show cars racing around urban streets.  Disgusting!

  • Streetsman

    This from the company whose last campaign’s tagline was “aggression, in it’s most elegant form.” I bet if you showed this add to focus group of 100 people and asked, after viewing it once in real time speed on a normal home tv, how many of them saw and retained the message “do not attempt” that are flashed briefly in small type during an action sequence with three cuts, than answer would certainly be zero. I hope they get their pants sued off for encouraging reckless, aggressive driving, but I wish no one would have to get injured to bring the case.

  • Brad Aaron

    Right, Andy B. Speeding kills as many people per year as DWI, but car makers would never get away with ads that promote drunk driving.

    Though the new Honda campaign comes pretty close.

  • Joe R.

    The damage these commercials cause goes far beyond encouraging reckless driving (note: high speed in and of itself isn’t dangerous given proper training, equipment, and road conditions-just ask the Germans). The real damage has been caused by all the potential gains in fuel efficiency from more efficient engines being squandered on more power instead, as if a family sedan really needs 300, 400, or even 500 HP. It’s a shame automakers have the clout they do or commercials which encourage reckless driving, especially in urban environments where it has no place, would be banned. It’s also a shame that there are no maximum power-to-weight ratios for vehicles which are allowed on public streets. A sensible 40 HP per ton ratio should be enshrined in law. Coupled with a suitably aerodynamic body, such a vehicle could still reach speeds well over 100 mph-eventually. That’s the real problem-today’s vehicles accelerate so rapidly that they can reach dangerous speeds in a block or two. It should take many blocks to accelerate to highway speeds. It should take a few miles to get past 100 mph. The idea here is you’ll actually have time to acclimate to higher speeds before you reach them.

    These kinds of commercials also bear out the obvious-without appealing to the reptilian portion of the brain for more power, more speed, more aggression, it’s a really hard sell getting someone to plunk down tens of thousands of dollars for a new vehicle. If we had a truth in advertising law which required automakers to show cars in typical traffic conditions (i.e. traffic jams, stopped at red lights, etc.) the idea of owning a car wouldn’t be all that appealing.

    In the end money talks. Perhaps what we need here is a class action lawsuit on behalf of everyone who has ever suffered from the structural violence automobiles inflict on our streets. At the very least such a lawsuit might make states get more serious about making the privilege of obtaining a license much harder.

  • Eric McClure

    I don’t think many Germans drive at autobahn speeds on the streets of Berlin, Hamburg or Stuttgart.

  • Anonymous

    Our righteous indignation means nothing.  The fact is that these ads work  It works on the   moneyed people that respond to this.  All the bike lanes, windmills and democratic party promises in the world will do nothing change it.  If only the enemy were as simple to pin down as some smartass ad agencies and car company executives.

  • jooltman

    Drivers are more important than everyone else on the road.  If you spend a lot of money and buy one of their cars, you too can be more important than everyone else.  What price, superiority?

  • JohnTheBicyclist

    I found these adds to be very inappropriate to say the least. The idea of Santa driving aggressively is disgusting. Isn’t Santa suppose be saying, “Peace and good will to all, and to all a good night”? This is add is saying just the opposite, “Watch out! Get out out of my way you slow pokes!”.


  • Davistrain

    This discussion points up one of the difficulties in getting citizens to give up motor vehicles–you’re asking people to give up power and control, represented by the gas pedal and the steering wheel.   And just as firearms with 30 round magazines put too much power in the hands of nutcases, overpowered automobiles put too much power in the hands of drivers who shouldn’t be in anything more powerful than a SmartCar.  Of course any attempt to tighten driver license standards will be quietly opposed by the motor vehicle industry and the oil companies, who don’t want to see their markets shrinking.

  • Festoonic

    In our moribund culture, aggressively driving a car or truck is the only socially-sanctioned opportunity people are given to feel “powerful” anymore. People are holding on to their preposterous standards of living by their fingernails. It’s no wonder they’re angry. And if they can’t walk away from their crummy jobs or afford to heat their great rooms, what other outlet do they have besides acting out behind the wheel? After all, they saw it on TV. They were promised.

  • Davistrain

    My wife is a big NFL fan, so we often watch two or three games on a Sunday.   I’ve never kept track, but it seems like 30 to 40% of the commercials are for various motor vehicles.  This includes the “speeding Santa” ad mentioned above.  Another gem is the Audi commercial that shows a young man driving to his parents’ house on a wintry day.  The parents see him coming and, when he goes to the front door, nobody answers.  The door is unlocked, so he goes inside and calls to them, still getting no answer.  Turns out they’ve gone out the back way and have slipped into the son’s Audi, which they are now taking for a joy ride.  This strikes me as rude and socially unacceptable.  I wouldn’t dream of taking one of my daughters’ cars without asking first, and I think nearly all real life parents think the same way.  My wife says, “It’s just a commercial.  It’s fantasy!”  And my reply is, “if  the car makers think I’m going to buy one of their products when they use this kind of nonsense, they’re out of their trees.”  If some people are influenced by fantasy ads and scenes of cars on scenic highways far from the freeways, arterials and city streets
    where the vast majority of vehicle miles are racked up, I want to paraphrase H. L. Mencken: Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public. 

  • chairs_missing

    Sadly, this is just how most people drive in LA.


Bringing Auto Safety Standards Into the 21st Century

The U.S. auto industry presents a striking paradox. On the one hand, manufacturers design and engineer for passenger safety, incorporating features such as airbags designed to protect passengers even in the face of serious human error.  On the other, manufacturers almost entirely disregard the safety of pedestrians, cyclists, and other motorists who foreseeably will be struck […]