Cigarettes and Automobiles
My father was a minister in a church in a small town in Wyoming. Every Sunday, after the service, his congregation would gather in the multi-purpose room on the corner of the slab church building to talk, drink coffee and smoke. The glass ashtrays on all the long folding tables would fill with grey mountains of ash. Cigarette after cigarette was sucked down to its filter until before long the atmosphere of the room was so thick you could see it, curling brown and painting the sunlight, from head to ceiling.
On one side of town sat the Bighorn range and on the other the Absorkee, but we weren't hemmed in by mountains, we were inside a church building. The smoke was so thick that I was physically unable to remain long in the room -- it made me cough, it made my eyes water, and all I could think was, "How could those adults stand to be in that place? How could they put up with that?"
That was nearly thirty years ago, but I can still feel what I felt when I walked into that room. I feel the same way when I wait for a bus on a busy corner and watch all the cars go by. I feel that way when I see another old building torn down and replaced with a surface parking lot. I feel that way as I try to bike on a suburban road, the traffic thick and smelling smoggy death.
Nobody would stand for a room as smoky as that church room today, and that gives me a great deal of optimism. Attitudes about smoking have changed radically over the last couple decades, and my hope is that the same kind of about face in public opinion will happen with the automobile. We have slowly become numbed to a more and more automobile-intensive world, a place that is becoming less pleasant because of their presence just as that church room filled up with smoke so thick I could not breathe.
During those days of smoky church rooms, cigarette companies did a great deal of advertising. The ads often featured exotic locations, like the wide open west, and seemed to say that smoking could take you away from your humdrum life. These ads depicted cigarettes as image-enhancers, as things that made you more attractive or manly, in terms of the kind of power it could give you over relationships and over other people. Because many people were beginning to understand just how bad smoking was, cigarettes were often advertised to show how its makers were using technology to make the product more salubrious, through filters and reductions of tar and nicotine. But other brands were advertised to highlight the bad side effects of the product, targeting these ads at people who liked the extra power that comes from using something risky and obnoxious.
If this kind of advertising sounds familiar it is because it is. Ads for automobiles today remind me very much of the ads I saw for cigarettes when I was young. The ads always take you away from the environment where you will most always use a car, a clogged city street or freeway. Safety features like airbags and strong construction are emphasized, while these features do little to reduce the tens of thousands of deaths in automobile accidents every year. The ads stress image and individuality, often setting up a scenario that pits a driver against the entire world outside his or her car.
Automobile advertising today is the advertising of a dying product; it is the screams of pain as the monster sees its death approaching. You can be sure that carmakers have the statistics on how destructive car culture is, just as tobacco companies had reports linking cigarettes with cancer when they began their last gasp advertising campaigns.
Attitudes toward smokers have changed radically in the last thirty years. Here's to seeing them change the same way toward drivers in the next thirty!