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Getting Back at Mother Nature
In a famous General Motors ad, a man clutches a briefcase while galloping bareback on a horse across open desert. The copy promises that driving GM's vehicles "frees us from the constraints of place. We go where we want, when we want. And if we hit a red light, we know more surely than we know most things in life, it will soon turn green." This ad-remarkable for not picturing any vehicles at all-is one of many that lament "the constraints of place" and urge car-buyers to rebel, to "let the environment adapt to you." While the ads deride nature, their photography inevitably celebrates its beauty with open vistas of desert or mountain.
Auto ads, most notoriously those selling sport-utility vehicles, often praise the same gorgeous natural landscapes that unfettered driving endangers. Behind the irony is the American consumer's ambivalence toward nature. Though a realm of freedom and beauty, nature also reminds us of our limitations as physical beings in a world we can't fully control. But slide behind the wheel, the ads suggest, and we'll gain both freedom from nature and the freedom of nature.
A TV commercial for Nissan's Pathfinder shows the 240-horsepower SUV speeding through lashing rains, burning desert, and howling winds. The voice-over warns that Mother Nature will try to drown, burn, and blow you away, but that she will not succeed-that is, as long as you're armored with a Pathfinder. This control or conquest of nature is a seductive fantasy, one that reaches deep into American history, recasting Manifest Destiny as Manifold Destiny. (It's no surprise that Nissan's pickup is the "Frontier" and sports the tag line "Going Where Others Don't Even Dare.") Who is not concerned by the prospect of violent, untimely death raised by these commercials? The irony is that these days it's mainly humans who harm the planet, not the other way around.
Chevrolet went so far as to co-opt the well-known environmental slogan "Love Your Mother." A full-color newspaper ad pictured its Blazer SUV aglow in handsome profile, proclaiming "Control Your Mother." The Blazer "helps you control just about anything Mother Nature throws your way." Here is the perfect revenge fantasy to get back at Nature for her perceived attempts to restrain us.
SUV makers have even portrayed their products as divine beings. One ad for Toyota's Land Cruiser suggested that "in primitive times, it would've been a god," and went on to explain that the SUV "has the qualities man has revered and respected for thousands of years. The power to tame the forces of nature. . . . For us mortals, it's the ultimate." Of course, since mortals own the vehicles, they then acquire the divine qualities of ultimate power.
Such imaginings encourage us to dismiss ecological knowledge of our dependence on a healthy environment, and-despite the small-print appeals to "Tread Lightly! on public and private land" that you'll find at the bottom of many SUV ads-any motivation for
environmental protection is undermined. Or, at least in one case, trampled with a smirk. Consider the ad for the 19-mile-per-gallon Jeep Wrangler, its beefy tires jouncing up a rock pile in front of a stormy snowcapped mountain ridge. The tag line? "Environmental Activist."
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--Catherine M. Roach