The Heat Is Online

Automakers Launch New Disinformation Ad Campaign

Ad blitz pans fuel rules

Carmakers: Choices of vehicles, safety at risk

The Detroit News, May 25, 2007


Despite rising gas prices and a growing concern about climate change, the auto industry is going on the offensive to convince Americans to oppose dramatically higher fuel economy requirements.


Led by Detroit's Big Three and Toyota Motor Corp., the industry is launching print and radio ads this weekend warning consumers that fuel regulations under consideration by the U.S. Senate would lead to higher vehicle prices and smaller and less safe vehicles.


The ads feature rural pickup owners and SUV-driving soccer moms to make the case that a Senate proposal would limit consumer choice and tie the hands of automakers.


The Senate will decide in mid-June on a bill that would force automakers to raise fuel economy 40 percent by 2020 to a fleetwide average of 35 miles per gallon for passenger cars and light trucks. Opponents, including Sen. Carl Levin, D-Detroit, will offer alternative proposals.


The House is working on its own fuel economy bill.


The automakers' aggressive public campaign -- after months of mostly cautious opposition -- may be a tough sell at a time of near-record gasoline prices as well as a growing concern about global warming and America's dependence on foreign oil.


"I'm sure that the car companies can put a significant amount of pressure on Congress and they may end up winning the battle, but losing the war in essence," said Florian Zettelmeyer, a marketing professor of the University of California-Berkeley who has studied the auto industry.


But automakers are betting they will get a better hearing from minivan owners and truck lovers than they have among political leaders and environmentalists.


David Cole, chairman of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, said trying to convince Congress of the problems with raising fuel economy "is like teaching a kindergarten class about the laws of thermodynamics."


Radio ads to start


The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers -- the trade association that represents General Motors Corp., Ford Motor Co., DaimlerChrysler AG, Toyota, BMW and four other automakers -- will run two radio ads in more than 10 states urging people to contact their representatives in Congress to oppose "extreme fuel economy mandates."


The alliance also has launched a Web site -- that offers a toll-free phone number that connects to members of Congress. It offers readers a way to send an e-mail to their Congressional representative -- complete with talking points they can cut and paste.


Separately, GM and DaimlerChrysler AG's Chrysler say they are sending letters to retirees, employees and dealers warning them of the downside of dramatically higher fuel economy standards.


GM, working with an outside lobbying firm, also is launching a separate Web effort -- "A Better Way: 21st Century problems cannot be solved with 1970s solutions," the Web site reads. Ford also plans some "grassroots communication with our employees and some retirees," said Ford spokesman Mike Moran.


The alliance said it would spend "way north" of $1 million on the ads to be run in Arkansas, Delaware, Idaho, Louisiana, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin -- all states with high percentages of truck and SUV owners.


"Our goal is to show that extreme fuel economy increases have many negative consequences, and we need a balanced approach that avoids harm to Americans dependent on larger cars and light trucks," alliance spokeswoman Gloria Bergquist said.

One radio ad is set against a bucolic backdrop of cackling chickens as two men talk about buying a new pickup. "You might want to do that fast," one says, adding the new fuel standards "are going to really jack up the price."


The second ad emphasizes that people -- especially mothers -- could lose the ability to pick larger and safer vehicles if new rules pass. One woman in the ad frets that "Congress is about to pass a law that's going to make it harder and harder to find (bigger cars) & Automakers are going to be forced to build smaller and smaller cars."


The other responds: "Why can't they let me make the choice? I'm all for better fuel economy, but for me safety is my top concern."


Senate Democrats vowed Tuesday to pass the fuel economy proposal.


"Consumers simply haven't been given enough choice of high fuel economy options on their minivans, SUVs, pickups and cars," said Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., saying the Senate proposal is "easily within reasonable reach of technologies like hybrids."


Critic: 'It's sad'


Environmentalists were not impressed by the argument.


"It's sad that the former Big Three are whistling past the graveyard so they can continue making gas guzzlers," said Daniel Becker, director of the Sierra Club's Global Warming and Energy Program and frequent critic of the auto industry.


In addition to the growing chorus in Washington for new regulations, the Supreme Court handed down a decision granting federal regulators the power to regulate carbon dioxide from vehicle tailpipes as an air pollutant. President Bush has called for 4 percent average annual fuel economy increases that automakers call "unattainable."


GM spokesman Greg Martin said the automaker's Web site, which is expected to go live later this week, was being launched by GM as "another place to find out information on actions that we believe offer a much more effective solution to counter the misperception that automakers are standing still to address climate change and energy security."


He noted the company is also reaching out to its employees and retirees. "We want to explain the consequences of some of the proposals that are out there that we view as technically unachievable."


Chrysler Group is contacting its dealers and others, noting that there are talking points and a form letter available at a password-protected company web site -- -- for dealers who want to contact Congress.


"My customers who are small business owners and need a pickup truck or SUV cannot simply shift to a small car, nor can a family of four throw out the minivan," the form letter said. "We fear that the bills combining cars and light trucks and the required levels of the standards will force domestic manufacturers to significantly curtail production of the vehicles many of our customers desire."


In 1975, Congress ordered automakers to more than double the fuel economy for passenger cars from 13 miles per gallon to 27.5 miles per gallon in 10 years. Since the 1980s, Congress has repeatedly considered but never adopted a fuel economy increase.


Last year, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration increased the mandates on SUVs by 2 percent a year, rising from 21.6 miles per gallon to 24 miles per gallon by 2012.


Mike Stanton, the head of the Association of International Automakers, which represents Toyota, Nissan, Honda and other foreign automakers, said his group wasn't planning on running any advertisements or mounting any ad campaign, noting his members have different positions.


Auto efforts

The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, a group that represents General Motors, Ford, DaimlerChrysler, Toyota, Mazda, BMW, Mitsubishi Motors Porsche and Volkswagen of America, Inc., has launched a website

* The alliance will run radio ads and print ads in at least 10 states, Arkansas, Delaware, Idaho, Louisiana, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin
* GM will launch later this week. The advocacy site will tout alternative to fuel economy regulations like alternative fuels

* Chrysler is using its website for dealers and others to learn more about fuel economy regulations and find form letters and talking points to use in contacting Congress.


© Detroit News