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What The Media Tell Americans About Free Enterprise

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Friday, May 19, 2000

Volume 8, Number 10

Ford Fuels Good Press By Bad-Mouthing Own SUVs

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."

Most 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 true."

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 contrary (see MediaNomics, 4/20/2000).

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 Clinton (see 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 environmentally sensitive.

"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 nicer."

Lesson for big business: Say what the media already think, and youíll score a public relations coup every time.


ó Rich Noyes


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