Social engineering is a concept many Americans naturally abhor, because it attacks our deeply held freedom, and we have always believed in doing virtually anything we want. Free-market capitalists feel this way, and most citizens usually go along for the ride.
But our country’s obsessive consumption of oil to fill the tanks of our auto-centric culture may eventually kill off the world, and believe it or not, Mr. and Mrs. America, you and I will go down, too. Our love affair with cars has to change, sooner rather than later. The hubris of excess (see Hummer) has gotten our society into a pickle, and it’s time to take a novel approach with this problem.
Let’s begin by tamping down the future demand side — or to put it another way, like a diet, we must decrease our consumptive appetite. Cars are wonderful machines, I’ll freely admit, and powerful tools that help us maintain our modern lives. But this obsession has gotten way out of control and threatens the very air we breathe, the earth beneath our feet, our overflowing landfills and even the worldwide political landscape. If every American drove less, walked more, considered mass transit, kept the same vehicle longer or thought about cars as a well-being issue, then perhaps we can yet avert catastrophe.
I suggest looking at a successful model from our past that effectively tackled a serious societal problem. This drastic transformation eventually brought about positive social change, despite the bleating of mega-corporations. I’m referring to the tobacco industry and cigarette advertising on TV and radio. Until 1970, U.S. consumers were bombarded by advertisements in all forms of mass media, including the most popular, television. People knew that something had to change, and lobbied the government hard.
Congress finally passed a law, heavily fought against by the tobacco and broadcasting industries, as well as the Nixon administration. Nonetheless, the “The 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 the Johnny Carson 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 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 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. The Tobacco Outlook Report, Economic Research Service, written in 2005 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, calculated that Americans 18 years and older smoked 4,287 cigarettes per capita in 1966 (the highest level in U.S. history) before the ban was enacted. The latest figures from 2004 estimate that number at 1,791 per capita.
Many factors, of course have driven the numbers of U.S. smokers down, but clearly the omission of smoking ads from the airways made a large difference. The ban has become a positive development for our country, and managed to change the behavior of many Americans.
I propose creating a similar ban on all automobile related television and radio advertising in the United States. I’m asking Congress to take the lead in helping to wean Americans, particularly the younger generations, off the fixations that glamorize cars. Getting rid of the TV ads will mitigate the lusting after cars, and the constant purported need to purchase a new car every few years.
Most older cars work just fine, and do not need constant replacement. Our landfills alone can’t handle the millions of pounds of auto junk poured into our earth. Our continual quest for more and more oil causes problems around the world, for both humans and the environment. I drive a car and am happy to so, but recognize that people do not need two, three, or four cars per person. We don’t have the room, resources or enough ozone to support this type of mindless consumption ad infinitum.
A shift is in order. I’m not suggesting that cars be made illegal, or tire shops raided. New and used car dealerships, gas stations, repair and painting facilities, oil changers, tune-up shops and the like will still be needed. I’m only suggesting that we start to alter the emotional as well as economic landscape before it’s too late.
Sure, the auto industry won’t like this proposal one bit, and neither will politicians raising big bucks from oil and auto manufacturing lobbyists, but upon reflection, the auto industry might come around. It won’t have to spend billions of dollars on producing and airing expensive television ads that compete with each other.
If the world begins to think of cars as, for instance, washing machines, then we may be on to something. Washing machines are mighty useful, but aren’t coveted. We don’t have Maytag commercials hitting us over the head every time we turn on the TV, or listen to the radio. We don’t need to see them sliding over slick roads in super slow motion. Washing machines are important tools that work well, and help us in our daily lives, just like cars.
Though difficult, this type of change is within our power, just as brave politicians and consumer groups in the late 1960s were eventually able to pass regulations banning broadcast smoking ads. My suggestion may be a small step, but it’s truly time to think big, reclaim the airwaves and make a positive difference that will affect future generations — for the better.
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