Now you see it. Now you don’t.

This article was published in 1999, in Newsletter 25.

In Newsletter 21 I talked about the way in which the motor industry reinforces the culture of speed through its advertising. There is a steady supply of adverts which promote speed. Three recent ones have caused us particular concern, and we have started to complain about such adverts to the Advertising Standards Authority.

Why does it matter? And why does it matter to us as cyclists especially? Very simply, speed culture kills. A third of collisions are speed related and between two-thirds and three-quarters of drivers regularly break urban speed limits. Most drivers don’t care and don’t want to listen – many drivers will tell you that they can handle their car at speed, that car technology has made speed limits irrelevant, that it is reasonable to add 10% and a bit more to the speed limit.

Yet the evidence belies this: the difference between 20 mph or even 30 mph and 40 mph is the difference between the majority of pedestrians surviving a crash and not. And, of course, in the urban environment especially, it is vulnerable road users like pedestrians and cyclists who are the victims of this process.

No modern car is likely to be driven at its top speed on the sort of roads still shared with cyclists. (Driving at 130 mph on a motorway is, of course, a safety issue, but not of direct concern to a cycling campaign.) However, by advertising on the basis of speed, or top speed, the advertisers reinforce the whole culture of speed, leading to the kind of denial attitudes I mentioned.

In the past the ASA has taken some adverts seriously which promote cars simply on the basis of their speed. We hope to be able to let you know next time the outcome of our complaint about the Peugeot 306D advert (see alongside).

This advert shows a blurred image of a car and a speed camera sign where the speed camera has a telephoto lens. The message is clear: even a speed camera couldn’t catch our car, it is so fast. Words like ‘blistering pace’ in the text complete the message. The element of tongue-in-cheek humour serves to poke fun at speed cameras.

We’ve started complaining about car adverts that promote speed.

Of course, on its own, upholding a complaint isn’t much of a sanction because the advert has been run and the advertisers have achieved what they wanted. However, the ASA also has the authority to make an agency get approval for its future adverts before running them. It looks to me like Peugeot is trying to run a series of adverts along the same lines, as the slightly more recent 206GTI advert shows. Again, a vaguely humorous visual image: the car is so fast that it has vanished from sight before the splash of water it made can settle. The strapline ‘Now you see it. Now you don’t’ once again serves to reinforce the visual message. Not even a car in the picture: the only message in the advert is speed. So a sanction against future adverts in a series is vital – it can cost an agency thousands of pounds to abandon an advert.

Advertisers have a bee in their bonnet at the moment: that the car buying public doesn’t equate performance cars with diesel engines. So agencies, of course, think they need to dispel that myth – the implication being that people won’t buy diesel cars because they aren’t perceived as performance vehicles, and therefore that performance is the main reason for buying the car. The 306D advert is an example of this, though I only discovered this because the advertisers said so to the ASA – presumably the macho car buying public knows that the ‘D’ in the name means diesel, a point utterly lost on me, I’m afraid. BMW are more up-front about it: their ad says that performance is what matters in this diesel.

Will you help?

These first couple of complaints are really testing the water. We have other allies: for example, the Pedestrians’ Association and 11 individuals also objected to the 306D advert. We would like to keep up a sustained stream of complaints, both from the Campaign and privately.

To do this we need a reasonably quick reaction. This means several things:

  • supporting (or even joining) our Safety on the Roads subgroup
  • monitoring the press and magazines for adverts,
  • circulating the details, and
  • writing letters of complaint

I think letters need not be long and could be identical: form letters or cards would be fine. Will you help with any or all of these three activities? If you can, please contact us: phone 690718 or email Incidentally, the Advertising Standards Authority only deals with print media, not television.

Slower Speeds Initiative

On the wider speed front, the Slower Speeds Initiative is giving a presentation to MPs at the House of Commons. This just misses the deadline for the newsletter. Clare is going to be there. We have written to both James Paice and Andrew Lansley (MPs for South East and South Cambridgeshire respectively) asking if they will attend. We will let you know all about it in the next newsletter.

David Earl