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Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Advertising misrepresents bicycling

Image of Bike Box billboard in Portland, OR
From the Birmingham News (AL), 08.13.08:

Positives of bicycling often not portrayed in ads
Most images of cycling presented in mass market ads follow one of two distinct approaches--one positive, albeit often nostalgic, the other unfortunately negative. This dichotomy neatly reflects the conflicted perception of the bicycle in our society.

On the positive side, images of riding through sunny wildflower-filled meadows or along quiet tree-lined streets are used to evoke warm feelings about simpler times, healthy living and good clean fun. This approach is used to sell everything from medicines and personal hygiene products to real estate developments and banking services, with the bicycle emblematic of life lived better.

On the dark side, negative ads typically depict riding a bike to actually go somewhere as a desperation move to be avoided. Some poor guy is shown ridiculously crouched on a child's bike or glumly struggling up a hill, his punishment for not buying the advertised product (usually car insurance, car parts, or even the car itself) which would have kept him among the happy motorized masses.

The potency of this biker-equals-loser image may help explain why, in a country with more than 100 million bikes, so few Americans ever use one to go to work or run an errand. (Read more.)
Excellent article from Alabama by Doug Daughhetee, who initiates a new cycling column in the Birmingham News with this provocative piece. How many of us bicycle commuters have not been offended by some ridiculous television commercial?

My personal least favorite commercial at present is a noxious ad from Autozone, which seems to plague every baseball game I watch. (Other than "South Park", my only consistent television habit is baseball.) The commercial shows some teenage boy (of course he's male) spending the hot summer fixing a broken down car at the side of the road, with a sign in the window declaring "If you can fix it, it's yours!" Making frequent trips on his bicycle to the local Autozone for helpful advice and parts, the kid gets the jalopy running: "At least the next time I come to Autozone, it won't be on my bike!" Yeah, right. In my ending of this silly commercial, the kid spends lots of time and money fixing the junker and just before he makes the final critical repair...the county tows it to the scrap yard. Am I cruel? Or realistic?

What's your least favorite broadcast or internet commercial these days?

Beyond television commercials--always heavy with automobile-related spots--television programming and films are bereft of positive images of bicyclists. As I wrote on this blog in 2006:
Generally, when bicyclists appear on celluloid, they are presented as marginal outcasts or eccentrics. In films such as The 40-Year-Old Virginor In & Out(1997, starring Kevin Kline), the films use bike commuting to accentuate the main character's idiosyncrasy. Or the so-bad-it's-hilarious 1986 Kevin Bacon vehicle, Quicksilver, which manages to insult both stockbrokers and bike messengers in one swoop. In The Wizard of Oz, what does the Wicked Witch ride when she's not on her broom? A bicycle (as her Kansas alter-ego). (Read more.)
The challenge for bike commuters isn't just about finding space on our streets. It's also about finding space in our culture. It's clear from all the recent news coverage of bicycling that we have an opportunity right now, thanks to rising gas prices. The recent growth of bicycling blogs, sites, publications, and advocacy groups is very encouraging. The moment is ripe, and we need to be present. On the streets, and in the culture.

Image: Web capture.
Visit: Ad Nauseam: State Farm on the Humiliation of Biking to Work, Streetsblog
Visit: More funny bike advertising, Bike Man Dan
Visit: Bicycling against car culture, Bike Commute Tips Blog
Visit: San Francisco bike mural, Bike Commute Tips Blog
Visit: Why I Ride: Bicycling in New York, Bike Commute Tips Blog
Visit: Zen and the Art of Bike Commuting, Bike Commute Tips Blog
Visit: Paul Dorn's Bike Commuting Tips Site


Anonymous said...

Forgive me, but I think you're being a little too sensitive. As a new bike commuter (coming up on 4 months now)I feel my outlook is pretty evenly placed between cyclists and motorist. Remember the ads you've mentioned, before I began cycling, I never for once had the notion of "yeah, bikes are lame." or any similar feeling.

I think the positive images of cycling (anyone see the Regions bank commercials? Their mascot is everyone on bright green commuter bikes) are a lot more persuasive than the negative ones. Maybe I'm more inclined to bike than the regular guy, but when I'd see those Regions commercials, it just made me want to go out and bike. But I can't ever remember an enterprise commercial making me think, "Maybe cycling isn't so great."

As a bike commuter, I'd probably be mroe sensitive now to negative images, but I think it's a lot less effective than you think. As a guy who works along side the ad business all day, I can assure that advertising is not nearly as effective as anyone hopes or thinks it is.

Anonymous said...

Paul, I saw that Autozone commercial and had similar thoughts. The bike is definitely portrayed as the undesirable mode of transportation. Too bad. Instead of having the county tow the car, I think a guy named Paul should ride up while he's working on the car and introduce the kid to the magic of bicycling. It could end with the kid ditching the car stuff and riding his bike off into the sunset. :-)

cadabeso said...

Thanks for posting the link to the Birmingham News article. As with Tony Bullard above, I'm not convinced that negative ads have much impact on "work-a-day" cycling. What DOES bug me, and what may be scaring off potential bike commuters, is the emphasis on bike racing in websites and blogs which are supposed to be dedicated to bike commuting. In fact, the Birmingham News article itself ends with a wrap-up of local bike events, all three of which are races and/or very long rides, the sort of rides that would have dissuaded me from ever taking up bike commuting. The only ride I've participated in recently - other than my daily bike commute to and from work - is Seattle's RideCivil, which is not long, is not a race, but is pro-work-a-day bicyling.

Anonymous said...

I share your annoyance at negative portrayals of cyclists in the media, but right now, for bike commuters, I really think there ain't no such thing as bad press. It's frustrating, but consider this:

The message of the Autozone commercial is, "This kid had to ride a bike because he didn't have a car." But the even more fundamental message is, "You can get around and do useful stuff even if you don't have a car."

The message of the State Farm "humiliated cyclist" ad was: "This poor sap had to ride to work because he couldn't afford gas." But the underlying message is: "If I rode my bike to work, I wouldn't have to spend so much on gas!"

And so on. It doesn't bother me as much that bicycles get used as shorthand in the media for "loser." People are figuring it out for themselves. That message isn't going to have legs for long, and the media will drop it when they figure it out too.

Anonymous said...

It's not just you, Paul - check out Bike Snob's take on it: Sounds familiar, no? He seems optimistic, though. Me, too - I want to see public service spots featuring the Sprockettes. Val

Adriel said...

I could not agree more with Paul Dorn. Autozone has a vested interest in portraying cycling in a bad light. They make money when you put wear and tear on a car. They do not WANT you to bike there. This is not some accidental coloring based on existing societal prejudice, this is reinforcing an existing prejudice with the intent of minimizing the activity.

Then we get to the insurance ads. How much money do these companies lose once 2 million people decide to live car-free? They have a VESTED interest in keeping you from biking there. They can apologize about it later, but they do not want you to bike there.

There is a lot of money at stake, and us cyclists are a threat to the oil fortunes of many, and the profits of the big auto makers. They will do what they can to keep bikes looking like losers in the media. Some news stations even bow to pressure from sponsors.

I know this sounds like a conspiracy theory, but I am not talking about aliens secretly controlling the government, I am talking about those with a lot of money using that money to keep it in their possession. This should not seem far fetched at all.

So, in conclusion I get VERY offended by these ads, and also the "professional driver on a closed course" ads. I am not being overly sensitive, I can see the damage this gasoline powered wheelchair existence is causing us as a species, and I get highly offended at those who would encourage it so they can wield power (in the form of money) over others.

And yes, I think I would like to do a commercial about gasoline powered wheelchairs, and what kind of loser takes that for a simple one mile journey. It could be a bicycle commercial.

dr2chase said...

Very much agreed on "follow the money". For a big company, a 1% year-to-year dip in customers would matter, and there's a lot of big companies that depend on cars for their income. Pretty much the whole point of "you can save a lot of money" is that someone invested in the status quo stands to lose the money that you would save.

Positive advertisements would be wonderful. I think the riding the spine ascent/descent of Mt. Tajumulco would be a good start. No question about how they got their vehicle to the top of the mountain -- they show you. I've got a bike just like one of those (XtraCycle), my brother's got another (Big Dummy). Apparently he'd make a pretty good ad for bike commuting -- Florida heat, dressed in (mostly) work clothes, hauling two kids off to school first thing in the morning. I've got the ten-miles-Boston-winters commute, and if I think I'm going to get sweaty or rained on and need to change, I figure I might as well clothes that are good for biking, so I tend to look less "normal".

clark said...

around 20 years ago i was working on a design for a house addition for a client who was the sales manager at the biggest ford dealership in town. he was visibly anguished one day when i rode in on my bike, leaving it in a corner of the showroom and walking up some stairs to deliver a set of preliminary drawings... ha ha.

SiouxGeonz said...

It's not, to me, a question of "offense." It's the consistent misportrayal of cycling as either impossibly bucolic or a sign of undesirable lack. Those subtle backgrounds are like "brand placements" - they register and imprint.
They're not going to make *me* think "cycling isn't great" because I have all kinds of other experience. The millions of non-addicts out there, though? They see me as some kind of hard-core athlete... some of them have said I'm "their hero" - but it's from a distance. The media helps keep me out there on the fringes. (SNork. Okay. I'm a fringy person regardless simply because I was trained in independent thinking, and the bicycle helps give it a definition people can be comfortable, but that's not true of lots of other cyclists.)
I *love* the Alabama article because it talks about cycling as NORMAL. Not something you see fringe characters on ads doing on the sidelines.

Anonymous said...

I'm afraid I have to agree - meaning that I too often find these commercials offensive. It has always been the auto insurance ones for me. In fact, I've seen the Autozone one, and didn't find it particularly troubling - probably because I was too caught up in the nostalgic reminiscing on my one youth in rural America.

Adriel said...

"They see me as some kind of hard-core athlete..."

This is another point I want to make to society at large.

I am not in incredible shape, I am really not a fine specimen of the wonderful machine that is man, I probably get about 10 hours of exercise a week. And that 10 hours a week got me about 4000 miles in the last 12 months. The average American is SO incredibly out of shape, that the fitness that should be NORMAL, is considered highly athletic.

This youtube video reminds me of what a motorist sounds like when they realize they cannot continue to afford gasoline.

Anonymous said...

Oh man, the only thing I can say is, lighten up folks. Who really cares what others think about your bike riding. Just ride. Be smug in the knowledge that you get it in terms of biking.

Anonymous said...

Another example: remember Ducky in _Pretty in pink_? Bike rider. Also I'm sure John Cusack had a bike-riding role, but I can't remember it. Then there were the kids in E.T. They actually made it look cool, taking their BMX bikes where the cars couldn't go, but the only reason they were on bikes was that they *were* kids. Now, when E.T. made Elliot's bike fly, that was the best!