Reckless ads encourage irresponsible behavior behind the wheel


Unlike other members of my family, and most people I know, I still watch the commercials on television. While my husband flips through dozens of channels before the top of the Orioles' next inning and my teenagers instant message their friends, download a song onto their iPods and finish a homework assignment in between crises on The OC, I watch to see how corporate America hawks its wares.

As a high school teacher of an American pop culture class, I have more than just a passing curiosity, particularly in what is being sold to teens and twentysomethings, one of the most active consumer groups in the marketplace. One can grasp a lot about the values of a culture from studying its advertising.

And so it was with a mixture of shock and disappointment that I watched Volkswagen roll out its most recent series of commercials for the Jetta, a model geared toward young drivers. The first features two young men, a driver and his passenger, talking about the driver's relationship with his girlfriend. The conversation goes something like:

"I don't think she, like, really listens to me when I talk."

"Well, maybe you should stop using `like' in every sentence."

"I don't use `like' in every sentence."

"Are you kidding me? How about your skiing story: `I was, like, going around this curve, and then, like ... '"

The conversation is abruptly interrupted as the driver, obviously distracted, slams into a car that he fails to notice backing out of a driveway. Although shaken, they are unhurt because they are driving a Jetta.

In the next commercial, two young couples are driving home together after a movie. The women are teasing their boyfriends about crying during the movie, an accusation that the boyfriends are gently but adamantly denying. They are so adamantly denying this that they don't notice the light has changed as they enter the intersection, and they slam into a car coming from the cross street. Once again, the four are unharmed because they, too, are driving a Jetta.

The message in both commercials is as clear as it is disturbing: If you are a lousy driver, don't sweat it; Volkswagen will protect you.

Unfortunately, the message that products and services can absolve us from personal responsibility has been touted by some insurance companies as well.

For months, I have watched as a friendly State Farm agent goes racing to the aid of a young woman who ran over her fiancM-i's foot with her car, a young mother who flipped her car over with her child inside of it, a young man who drove his car into a lake and a woman who fails to produce her insurance card for the cop who has pulled her over. In each case, though, State Farm saves the day and takes the problem, and responsibility, out of the hands of the driver.

I used to worry about my kids seeing commercials that use sex to sell mouthwash and make beer look like the pathway to popularity. Now I hold my breath wondering if my young drivers will feel like a well-made car and a well-crafted insurance policy can replace good defensive driving practices.

Of course, I'm hoping that a 30-second commercial can't replace the years of parental badgering about watching the road, not speeding and carrying an insurance card at all times. And I'm hoping that my kids are savvy enough that they will disdain a company that tries to tell them that the safer the car is, the more careless the driver can be.

At the very least, I'm hoping that they will continue IMing their friends during commercial breaks.

Halaine S. Steinberg lives in Owings Mills. Her e-mail address is

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