The benefits of Arianna Huffington's campaign

Posted: Jan 17, 2003 12:00 AM
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 choices." 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 warmer. 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.