General Motors is going to rue the day it insulted Wayne Scott — not just because Scott is combative, articulate and dogged, but also because he has begun voicing what I hear so many people saying privately: That car advertising is duplicitous. That to market cars, companies sell images of sexiness, status, adventure, and success, even though they know the ads promote conduct that is destructive, selfish, uncaring, smug, and anti-social.
Scott calls the ads environmentally seditious. He’s not against cars; he’s against the ads. And because of the damaging impact they can have, he thinks they should be regulated by government, just like advertising for tobacco and alcohol.
You’ll remember Scott: he’s the former bicycle courier, sidelined because of injuries and age — he’s now 50 years old — who won a celebrated court case against the federal government that allows couriers to treat the cost of food as a deductible income tax expense because, for them, food is fuel.
I asked him why he was taking on General Motors. « It was trouble that came my way,’’ he said. « These guys stuck their nose in my life. It was an affront to all the hardworking guys I know.’’ Specifically, it was an affront to the thousand-or-so couriers who belong to the Toronto Hoof & Cycle Courier Coalition, which he says, pretty well includes all the couriers in the city.
General Motors had run an ad showing a cartoonist working against deadline. On the other side of the city, his editor was pacing the sidewalk waiting for that day’s cartoon. With minutes to go, the cartoonist finished, jumped into his car — a Chevrolet Cavalier — and sped off to deliver his cartoon. « Why trust lunatic couriers, when you can do it yourself,’’ the cartoonist intoned in a voice over.
« The whole thing was a crock,’’ Scott says. First of all, there’s no way a motorist could negotiate downtown traffic faster than a courier. And secondly, « We’re out there lessening all the emissions damage they’re doing.’’
He complained to Advertising Standards Canada, the advertising industry’s self-policing agency, on the grounds that the ad demeaned an identifiable group, and General Motors voluntarily changed the ad so that it no longer referred to « lunatic couriers.’’
But that was just the beginning. Scott began looking at other ads, and what he saw deeply offended him. The ads went beyond irresponsibility. They flogged a mythology that said it was okay to devastate the environment as long as you had an immediate benefit to your ego, your passion of the moment, or your convenience, no matter how trivial it might be.
Scott became Hoof and Cycle’s Automobile Dependence Reduction Officer. It’s a lovely title, both spoof and warning.
His next target was an ad for GM’s Cadillac Escalade van that ran two months ago in the Globe and Mail’s Report on Business Magazine, and in the National Post. There’s a picture of the van speeding along a city street. In one corner, at the top, there’s a space shuttle taking off. Centre-top is a cup of coffee. And most prominently, toward the middle, is « 345 HP.’’ The tag line says « Because sometimes a caramel macchiato just can’t wait.’’ Later on it adds, « Even if (you’re going) no farther than the corner coffee shop.’’
« They’re absolutely nuts,’’ says Scott. « General Motors is urging you to jump into this van simply to drive to the corner for a cup of coffee? When you can’t use 345 horsepower and stay within the speed limit? And then you have to park? If you walked, you’d have your coffee half drunk by the time you stepped out of the van.’’ And there’d have been no contributing to global warming, no clogging city streets, no consumption of non-renewable resources.
He again complained to Advertising Standards Canada. He got back a letter saying it would not consider his complaint unless he agreed to keep it secret. « Confidential’’ was the word used.
He chuckles. Him keep it confidential!
This is only the beginning — and I say it’s about time.