The benefits of Arianna Huffington's campaign
1/17/2003 12:00:00 AM - Jacob Sullum
Arianna Huffington says her anti-SUV commercials have been
misunderstood, and I think she's right. To really understand these ads, you
have to know something that's not mentioned in the spots themselves: They
premiered the same week her new book came out.
The ads, which accuse SUV owners of complicity with terrorism,
predictably generated outrage, forcing the columnist to go on TV and radio
to explain herself -- and, incidentally, to plug her book. If viewing the
ads as a book-tour publicity stunt seems too cynical, consider how
implausible the alternative explanations are.
At first glance, the commercials seem to be mocking the federal
government's anti-drug ads, after which they are closely modeled. Indeed,
Huffington says the spots were inspired by her disgust at the government's
propaganda, which she rightly calls "ridiculous and wildly inflammatory."
But the satire is undermined by the earnestness of the anti-SUV
message. If Huffington really means for us to contemplate the moral
implications of our vehicle choices, which she insists she does, then the
ads are just as ridiculous and inflammatory as the ones they are ostensibly
lampooning. This is not satire; it's hypocrisy.
Huffington wants to have it both ways. "This campaign is not
designed to demonize SUV owners," she told the Associated Press. "We want to
encourage customers to connect the dots and make socially responsible
When you point out that charging SUV owners with aiding and
abetting people who murder innocent men, women and children does seem to be
demonizing them at least a little, Huffington insists the ads should not be
taken literally. Then they're just parodies, meant to illustrate the
absurdity of the government's anti-drug logic? No, she says, because SUVs
really are evil. Got that?
As for encouraging "socially responsible choices," the ads are
far more likely to provoke hostility, especially from people who bought SUVs
because they valued their safety advantages or needed the cargo and
passenger space. When one such driver, a mother who regularly hauls around
several kids and their gear, called a radio show to say she found the
anti-SUV ads insulting, Huffington blithely informed her that she was a
victim of the auto industry's disinformation.
This is the subtext of the anti-SUV campaign: Consumers are too
stupid to know their own interests, too stupid even to realize they're in
cahoots with terrorists.
Let's try to "connect the dots" Huffington has laid out for us.
About 25 percent of U.S. oil imports come from the Persian Gulf, and imports
represent a bit more than half of our petroleum consumption. Unless we
assume that every dollar Saudi Arabia receives is immediately turned over to
terrorists, some fraction of the proceeds from about 14 percent of the oil
we use could be said to benefit the jihadists shown in Huffington's ads.
Energy Department figures indicate that "light trucks" -- the
category that includes SUVs, minivans and pickups -- account for something
like 16 percent of U.S. oil consumption. The shares for cars, trucks and
airplanes are roughly 22 percent, 11 percent and 6 percent, respectively.
So why the focus on SUVs? It's true that, as a class, they're
less fuel-efficient than cars, although the overall difference may not be as
big as most people imagine. According to the Energy Department, the average
mpg for light trucks is about 18, compared to 22 for cars. But if the point
is that people should avoid unnecessary oil consumption because it
subsidizes terrorism, Huffington and her group, the Detroit Project, should
be casting a much wider net. By their logic, you're supporting murderous
fanatics anytime you drive when you could have used public transit or ridden
a bike; take a cab when you could have taken the subway; go on a weekend
road trip instead of staying home; fly when you could have taken a train;
buy a gas-powered mower or leaf blower instead of an electric one; or eat
out-of-season produce that has to be flown or trucked in from someplace
I'm sure Huffington, who turned in her SUV for a snazzy little
gas/electric hybrid and never misses a chance to preach the virtues of
conservation, will take the next step by eliminating unnecessary trips in
taxis, limos and airplanes. It may hobble her book tour, but perhaps that's
just as well. If she sells too many copies, her publisher will have to send
out more, and the trucks that carry them won't be burning water.