The Utopian World of SUVs
It’s a 100-year-old formula: the world of advertising exploits nature to sell us polluting cars, explains Guillaume Rivest. So why do we keep buying them?
Canoe on the roof, bicycle on the back, an SUV heads toward a mountaintop with a happy young couple on board. The only thing needed to complete this picture of happiness is a V6 engine with next generation all-wheel drive.
A few days after seeing these images, someone might add another gas-guzzling vehicle to Canada’s fleet of vehicles. This would be no exception. Since 2010 the number of light-duty trucks (SUVs, pickups, crossovers, and minivans) hitting the country’s roads has risen by 144 per cent.
Ads for SUVs always make me a little uncomfortable. I feel like they’re trying to convey the message that “if you’re not outdoors, it’s because you don’t have the right car.”
This attempt at manipulation makes me cringe. I earn a living through outdoor adventures, as a guide, an educator, or a journalist. My method of transportation has only very rarely limited me in terms of access to the land. My friend François’ Toyota Tercel has taken me to the far reaches of the Yukon along the Dempster Highway — the point of departure for a number of week-long treks. For about 10 years, my Toyota Yaris valiantly carried my canoe and kayak (and sometimes both at once) across thousands of kilometres of forest roads as I explored my native Abitibi. It served as an ATV as often as a car.
It may not have been the optimal mode of transportation. But what’s important to remember is that you don’t go canoeing because you have a 2021 Subaru Forester. You go canoeing because you go canoeing.
But nature sells, and marketing specialists know it. According to a study published by Équiterre — results can be found here and here — nature is found in 68.2 per cent of Canadian ads for light-duty trucks. Vehicles criss-cross a dry riverbed, roam a distant forest’s trails, or summit a mountaintop. They’re not trying to sell us a car: it’s a way of life, a passport for adventure, a one-way ticket to a world without limits.
This tactic wasn’t invented yesterday. In the 1920s car manufacturers used nature imagery abundantly in their advertisements. They wanted to make people believe that it was possible to free themselves from the constraints and the ugliness of the urban world. Henry Ford was quoted saying: “We shall solve the city problem by leaving the city.”
In his article “‘You Belong Outside’: Advertising, Nature, and the SUV,” Shane Gunster, a professor at Simon Fraser University, examines publicists’ “manipulative use of natural imagery to promote an ecologically disastrous form of technology.”
According to Gunster, advertisers exploit the image of the wilderness to make a pitch for the (utopian) idea that a product could lift us out of the malaise of urban life.
A 4×4 allows us to spontaneously leave our hectic daily lives and head for the simplicity and peace of open spaces. Ads cultivate the myth of nature as a site of transformation; here, at last, is the revelation that will give meaning to our lives.
They seem to forget that nature is also accessible via small cars, buses, bikes, and even sometimes on foot. As for the famous moment of introspection promised by each advertisement, these moments have, of course, nothing to do with material possessions, and everything to do with our state of mind. The greatest paradox is that they try to convince us to consume in order to solve a crisis caused by capitalism itself, writes Gunster.
The problem, now more than ever, is that cars pose a serious threat to the same nature used to sell them to us.
A glaring inconsistency
In the same report published by Équiterre, we learn that a light-duty truck emits an average of 31 per cent more greenhouse gases (GHG) than a standard car. Considering the popularity of this type of vehicle, it’s not surprising that the transportation sector is the second-biggest emitter of GHG in the country, second only to the oil industry.
In 2020, in Canada, nearly four out of five cars sold were in the light-duty truck category. If we choose these vehicles in spite of the fact that they are highly polluting, it may be because advertisers deploy the full arsenal to convince us to. In 2019, $1.6 billion was invested in digital publicity by the Canadian automotive industry — the second-largest investment of its kind in the country. And 79 per cent of this budget was dedicated to promoting light-duty trucks.
But why is such emphasis placed on the more fuel-inefficient vehicles, rather than economy models? According to Samuel Lessard, an automotive journalist, it’s a question of money. “For the manufacturers, it’s much more lucrative to sell us a light-duty truck than a traditional car. They use approximately the same technical components to manufacture both, but the profit margin is far more significant with the former.” Indeed, the purchase price of a light-duty truck is up to 40 per cent higher than that of a regular car.
Paradoxically, Lessard explains, some light-duty trucks, such as SUVs, are less and less built for nature, and more and more designed for urban settings. “Take Honda’s HR-V for example — it’s sold as an all-terrain vehicle. But the facts are that the manufacturer took a Honda Fit, a very small car, and enlarged it and raised the passenger compartment. All-wheel drive is an optional add-on — but it’s presented as an SUV.” The result: a vehicle that’s more expensive, less efficient, and sometimes far from fulfilling its promises.
While sales of light-duty trucks are exploding, I can’t help thinking that the large majority of them will probably never go to the woods. How many will even touch a gravel road?
(And I’m not talking about a construction zone in downtown Montréal.)
If you’re a building contractor, a Ford F-150 may be justifiable. It’s less so if you’re using it to go grocery shopping or simply to get to and from work.
Detaching nature from advertising
So why do we buy them in spite of it all? To give ourselves a (false) sense of freedom? To prove to ourselves that the cathartic moment we so long for will be more accessible with four-wheel drive?
What if all this pointed to a deeper malaise? On a fundamental level, we want to be reconnected with the natural world we come from, but many of us don’t know how anymore. How do we start reclaiming these spaces, at once hostile and familiar? The answer is embarrassingly banal: by going outside.
This may be why car ads work so well. In their shameless association of nature and SUVs, they give us an “easy” — and purchasable — answer to a loss of bearings that can feel dizzying.
But what the ads don’t say is that contact with nature is hard to come by from inside an air-conditioned passenger compartment, with a bluetooth speaker spitting out pop music.
Adventure can very well begin with an SUV — with any car at all. It doesn’t matter how you get to the river; the true journey begins once you’re in the canoe.
Connecting with nature can’t be bought. It can only be experienced.
Guillaume Rivest is a reporter and independent journalist originally from Abitibi-Témiscamingue. He holds a B.A. in applied political science and a Master’s in environmental studies, and is passionate about nature and the outdoors — during the summer he works as a guide. Guillaume contributes regularly to the show Moteur de recherche on Ici Radio-Canada Première.