Automobile Advertising by the Numbers: Promoting Chronic Diseases and Injury, Pollution and Unlivable Cities

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A Cadillac Escalade, a General Motors Sports Utility Vehicle Photo Credit 

In the The Hidden Costs of Cars, posted on Medium, Todd Medema summarizes some of the ways that automobile use in the United States harm health, the environment and the pleasures of city living.  As President Trump promotes expansion of the automobile industry and relaxation of emissions and pollution controls and the auto industry increasingly relies for profits on the more polluting SUVs and light trucks, is the United States poised for a rise in auto-related harms?

The auto industry defends its promotion of more polluting vehicles as simply giving the American people what they want.  But an examination of advertising expenditures over the last decade shows that the industry spends heavily to shape those choices.  As with tobacco, alcohol and unhealthy food, the choices consumers make are influenced by what’s available on the market and the content and volume of advertising.  A look at the numbers reveals the scope of these efforts:

Screen Shot 2018-05-16 at 5.09.50 PMIn 2016, the ten largest auto makers in the United States spent $15.5 billion dollars on advertising. General Motors was the biggest spender, with almost $3.8 billion allocated to advertising.

Screen Shot 2018-05-16 at 5.09.50 PMIn 2015, light trucks and SUVs accounted for 63% of vehicles sold in the United States, up from 17% in 1980. The number of vehicles sold increased more than fivefold, from about 2 million vehicles to about 11 million.

Screen Shot 2018-05-16 at 5.09.50 PMAn automaker earns about $1,500 to $2,000 for a passenger car, said Jeff Windau, an auto industry analyst at investment house Edward Jones & Co.  “You contrast that with $10,000 to $13,000 on a truck. You can definitely see that the trucks and SUVs are driving the profitability of the automakers.”  In 2016, General Motors generated 100 percent of its U.S. profit from large SUVs and pickup trucks, according to a report from Morgan Stanley Research.

Screen Shot 2018-05-16 at 5.09.50 PMIn 2015, the top seven global auto advertisers—Volkswagen, General Motors, Daimler AG, ford, Toyota Fiat Chrysler and BMW spent almost $32 billion on advertising, contributing to increased auto and SUV purchases around the world.

Screen Shot 2018-05-16 at 5.09.50 PMIn U.S. mass media and digital advertising in 2016, automotive advertising was the second largest category, outspent only by retail chains.

Screen Shot 2018-05-16 at 5.09.50 PMFor each fatality avoided for an SUV or light-truck occupant, studies show,  more than four fatalities are inflicted on others. Furthermore, SUVs (as well as pickup trucks) were more often involved in pedestrian deaths, and upon accidents a higher pedestrian injury severity score was obtained. Light trucks and vans (including SUVs) were four times as likely to be associated with fatal injury of young children. SUVs and light trucks emit more pollution and air pollution accounts for roughly one out of nine deaths worldwide, or 11.2 percent of global deaths.  As SUV sales increase in the United States, Europe and China, these nations may face more difficulty in reducing pollution-related deaths and disease, a problem also confronting  low and middle income countries.