Environmentalists donít like sport utility vehicles
(SUVs). They say they get terrible gas mileage, are big polluters,
and are so huge that theyíre a physical danger to drivers of more
Earth-friendly (i.e., tiny) cars such as the Chevy Metro or the
Suzuki Swift. Thatís also been journalistsí conventional wisdom for
years; back on February 18, 1998, NBCís Robert Hager trumpeted a
government study that "big sport-utility vehicles, pick-ups, and
vans... [are] a growing threat to safety on the highways."
media types were therefore surprised and pleased when the Ford Motor
Company, maker of SUVs, announced in a "Corporate Citizenship
Report" that it agreed with its critics that SUVs were both
dangerous and dirty. "Ford is now conceding there are real problems
with its most profitable product," proclaimed Tom Brokaw on the May
12 Nightly News.
"The huge, and hugely popular, sport utility vehicle so common on
US highways, the SUVs, are also popular targets for critics,"
related CBSís Dan Rather that same night. "They waste fuel, pollute
the air; they're just too big, so say the critics. Now the Ford
Motor Company, which makes tons of money selling SUVs, says it's all
But is it true? As Rather said, Ford does make a ton of money
selling SUVs, so presumably the company would be the last to
criticize its own product. But the available evidence suggests that
SUVs arenít nearly as bad as environmentalists, the media, and now
Ford say they are.
First, as SUVs have become increasingly ubiquitous, traffic
deaths have actually gone down. According to the National Highway
Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), in 1997, the last year for
which complete data are available, "the fatality rate per 100
million vehicle miles remained at its historic low of 1.7, the same
since 1992, as compared with 2.4 in 1987." The NHTSA gives credit
for the low death rate to higher seat belt use and fewer drunk
drivers, but itís plain from the data that thereís been no increase
in highway deaths as SUVs have become more popular.
While the much heavier SUV will probably win in a collision with
a compact car, the real safety problem is that the governmentís
Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards -- which mandate
that the average fuel consumption of all passenger cars sold by a
manufacturer such as Ford must average 27.5 miles per gallon -- have
led to cars that are smaller, lighter and less safe. Thatís one
reason why many families in search of safety have switched to SUVs,
which are exempt from CAFE standards.
"CAFE has a lethal effect on auto safety," says the Competitive
Enterprise Institute. "Decades of research have made it clear that
large cars are more crashworthy than similarly equipped small cars
in all collision modes."
Second, air quality has improved over the last couple of decades,
partly because both new cars and new SUVs incorporate better
technology that helps produce fewer noxious emissions. In this
respect, a new SUV may be better for the environment than an old car
that was manufactured in the 1970s or 80s, but you wouldnít know
that from listening to the SUVs critics.
This makes Fordís bad-mouthing of its own product all the odder.
Car and Driverís Brock Yates wrote in the Wall Street
Journal that the anti-SUV comments "baffled stockholders,
stunned Wall Street, angered dealers who were selling the scorned
machines by the truckload, and left observers wondering if the
latest Mr. Ford isnít yet another guilt-ridden rich kid, not a proud
tycoon like those who preceded him."
But since Chairman William C. Ford, Jr., assumed the leadership
of the company his great-grandfather founded, Ford Motor has been
going out of its way to systematically validate environmentalistsí
complaints about big business ó and earning tons of favorable media
coverage in the process.
Last December, Ford decided to pull his company out of the Global
Climate Coalition, a group organized to help block imposition of the
Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change, whose rules could severely affect
U.S. businesses. The media erroneously portrayed Fordís withdrawal
from the group as proof of a growing consensus about the severity of
global warming, in spite of considerable scientific evidence to the
Writing in the San Francisco Chronicle last December,
columnist Debra Saunders praised Ford for its "unusual corporate
responsibility," as if itís economically responsible for a company
to help grease the wheels for unnecessary and potentially
destructive government regulations.
In April, Ford was the sole advertiser in Time magazineís
special Earth Day issue, which pushed for an activist approach to
fixing environmental problems and portrayed human beings (many of
whom are Ford customers) as parasites on the planet.
"Thereís no telling if the earth -- already worked to exhaustion
feeding the 6 billion people currently here -- can take much more,"
wrote Timeís Jeffrey Kluger in a piece about overpopulation.
"The human presence has become so dominant that we have disrupted
even these most basic mechanisms of the planet," similarly intoned
magazine contributor Eugene Linden.
"Ford Motor Company is very proud to be the exclusive sponsor of
these important issues of Time and Time For Kids
magazines," Ford Vice President James Schroer said in a company
press release. Many of Fordís advertisements in that issue had
little to do with cars, but promoted instead the companyís work to
preserve sections of the Brazilian rain forest and plant trees in
Mexico "in an effort to bring the ecosystem back into balance."
Chairman Ford received positive treatment in Planet Earth 2000,
the ABC News special that was otherwise known for dispatching movie
actor and Earth Day Chairman Leonardo DiCaprio to interview Bill
Media Reality Check, 4/06/2000). In one segment of the
show, ABC reporter Chris Cuomo praised Ford for spending $2 billion
to re-design the companyís River Rouge plant to make it more
"Iíd like to prove that being at the cutting edge of
environmental leadership and to really push the envelope on
environmental issues is also a good business proposition," William
Ford told Cuomo.
The mediaís sympathetic attitude towards the environmental
movement was on display as they failed to question whether Ford was
accurate in its condemnation of SUVs or offer any contrary views.
Instead, Ford won praise for what CBS correspondent Bob Orr called
"a rare moment of corporate candor."
"For the moment," Orr reported on May 12, "Ford has scored a
public relations coup, winning praise from some of its harshest
critics, but now the automaker has to follow through on a vague
promise to make some of its meanest but most popular vehicles
Lesson for big business: Say what the media already think, and
youíll score a public relations coup every time.