Dated advertising on Hills Road

This article was published in 2012, in Newsletter 104.

Image as described adjacent

A local property management firm has put its name on a supersized advertising billboard, visible from Hills Road bridge in Cambridge. It proudly displays a fleet of small cars, and shouts in big letters: ‘We’ve got Cambridge covered!’

Cars are a common sight in the visual discourse of adverts. They usually advertise themselves: displaying the vehicle to its best advantage, its promise of freedom, speed and beauty. But what would be the message our local property managers want to transmit by displaying their fleet of cars? Perhaps they want to say: ‘We have many cars, and we can run them around town to visit your property, to show it to renters, to keep appointments with the trade, to read meters, to see that everything is in order. We have so many cars, we can almost “cover” our local streets with them.’

True, managing properties involves a lot of driving around. Those who traverse the city on the bicycle will have noted these or similar cars, often strikingly decorated as advertising for their respective firm. But do all these trips really need to be made in a motor vehicle? While one firm shows off its fleet of cars, another may just as proudly develop a business plan seeking to be light on traffic, light on the environment, and green on the town. These are surely interesting times when the confirmed motorhead will readily encounter someone who tries to reduce his car use. Even now, somewhere else a green innovator is perhaps thinking how less driving will reduce the carbon footprint of his firm, how it will save time and money, and go on to design a charming bike fleet so that his employees can avoid the stress of congestion, be green and punctual, and contribute to make this city a better place with less traffic.

But the advertising across Hills Road comes from a different universe. The mentality is firmly of the last century. Not a single questionmark about the benefit of driving a car in sight. They present themselves as a local firm, but the desperate pride in their little fleet of cars is completely out of place in the most cycled city of the nation where more than 26% of all trips are on two wheels, without the exoskeleton that has so thoroughly changed our cities and our lives.

Today, Cambridge is thinking about ways to improve our community by reducing the need to drive, by making it easy and welcoming to use a bicycle. Hopefully, this comment on their billboard will encourage them to find a way to improve life in the residences they manage, and enhance the community they traverse, by taking a few cars off the road? Surely they can agree that, with cars, less is always better.

Looking at the billboard again, it seems that Accent and their PR partners still have a long way to go to arrive at the present, and to understand the car-light mood of this city. In the meantime, thousands of irritated drivers waiting for their turn on Hills Road will look with disbelief at this celebration of yet more cars, while the cyclists and pedestrians who pass this billboard every day will simply consider it ridiculous, yesterday, and in bad taste. Cars are of course a most useful invention, but if all goes well, ‘We’ve got Cambridge covered’ could turn out to be the last local advert which tries to present the car as a positive force.

Michael Cahn