Why Do We Buy SUVs and Pickups? A new British study blames advertising for selling false promises of safety and superiority.

By Lloyd Alter, April 27, 2021. Fact checked by Haley Mast

Queen Elizabeth in her Land Rover
Queen Elizabeth in her Land Rover.Tim Graham Photo Library / Getty Images

Every time we write a post suggesting any kind of limits on light trucks such as SUVs and pickups, we get comments like “I need it to tow my trailer full of ATVs over Red Mountain Pass in Colorado.” However, a new report titled Mindgames on Wheels – from the New Weather Institute think tank and the climate action charity, Possible – finds that in the United Kingdom, the majority of the biggest SUVs are found in the wealthiest boroughs of London.1 “Large SUVs are most popular, not in remote farming regions, but in affluent urban and suburban areas,” notes the report. These are also areas with narrow streets designed in earlier centuries, and where many of the stables and garages in the mews have been turned into housing. “New cars that are too large to fit in a standard UK parking space are most popular [and] correspond closely with those places where road space is most scarce, and where the highest proportion of cars are parked on-street.”

The sales of light trucks in the U.K. are still far lower than in the United States, and almost none of them are pickups, However, the main thrust of the report is a look at how we got to where they are such a big part of the market, and that story is mostly American.

“Our analysis of the history of automobile manufacturers marketing messages around SUV models finds that carmakers have spent decades working with advertisers to carefully and deliberately cultivate consumer demand for vehicles that are far bigger and more powerful than their typical buyers could ever need in practice.”

A hilarious part of the history is how it started with chickens. in the late 1950s, Europe was exporting huge numbers of chickens to European countries, which wanted to develop their own industry, so they imposed a tax on imported chickens. “The Lyndon Johnson administration responded with a tax on imported pick-up trucks. In effect, this locked foreign competitors out of the US market for a generation, until the turn of this century.”

A bigger driver of the SUV boom was the fact that light trucks were treated differently than cars, which have been regulated for fuel economy since 1978. Trucks over 6,000 pounds were exempt, with the limit raised to 8,500 pounds in 1980 – but they were still permitted to have lower fuel efficiency than cars. These big land yachts were far more profitable than cars, but the manufacturers still had to convince people to buy vehicles that were more expensive and harder to drive; that’s where the marketing comes in. At first, they learned from Land Rover, which was hugely successful with rich landowning types in the U.K.; Queen Elizabeth, who drove ambulances in the Second World War, loved driving hers. In the U.S., the trucks were also sold on the basis of aggressiveness and domination:

The marketing was very closely targeted towards specific psychological types. Most people hated the aggressive advertising for the enormous Dodge Ram. Only 20 percent of people in the USA liked the advertising – but that minority loved them.”

Other strategies included tapping into the “American psyche that believes in the outdoor life” and perceived safety, even though they are not safer at all, not least for anyone around them.

The report was prepared for a campaign called Badvertising, which has protested “high-carbon advertising” by fossil fuel companies, airlines, and car companies, and which supports “a shift in social attitudes away from these products and towards a cleaner, sustainable future.” So advertising is where their recommendations are focused, and which include an end to SUV advertisements. More explicitly,

“The Badvertising alliance is calling for adverts for new cars with emissions exceeding 160g of carbon dioxide per kilometre or with an overall length exceeding 4.8m [16 feet] (that’s longer than your average crocodile) to no longer be permitted in the UK in any form, starting now. These thresholds would equate to an advertising ban on the dirtiest third of the UK car market in terms of carbon emissions – and on all cars which are too big to fit in a standard UK parking space.”

That would include also just about every American SUV or pickup truck. They also are demanding that the British Advertising Standards Authority step in and implement codes that end advertising for high carbon products – and they call on creative agencies and their media partners to reject future advertising work for “polluting SUV vehicles – again as more ethical practitioners once rejected tobacco clients.” It would be fun to see someone propose that in North America.