We watch... so you don't have to.

Don't Try This At Home, Moron

We've all seen those car commercials in which the new sedan or sports car is speeding along some winding mountain road or hydroplaning across a rain-slicked straight-away and the driver is swerving to avoid falling boulders and shoulder-mounted antitank missiles and thunderbolts hurled down from Olympus. And no matter what car the commercial is hawking, there's always a variation of the same message placed on the screen in a small yet still eye-catching font -- "Professional Driver: Do Not Attempt." Maybe you've enjoyed a good laugh at the expense of these ads -- God knows I have. "Yes, indeed," I'll say to myself after such a commercial airs. "I was just about to fire up the ol' '91 Plymouth Acclaim and head out to that crumbling mountain highway where spikes periodically shoot up out the road before I have to drive through the wall of fire at a rate of speed three times higher than the posted limit. But thanks to your stern but sensible bit of legalese, I'll probably just finish my pot pie."

Then I remember that the legal mumbo-jumbo was probably stuck in the ad at the behest of some Ivy League-educated lawyer who doubtlessly racked up the gross domestic product of Belgium in billable hours just for telling a car company to remind people not to drive like maniacs after buying their new Subaru. And suddenly the ad is only funny in the sad, ironic sense of the word.

Nevertheless, the legally mandated warnings are there with every car commercial, comforting us, soothing us, reassuring us that no one will ever drive in an unsafe manner unless he or she happens to be a professional driver in closed conditions.

At least, they used to be.

There's this ad for a sport-utility vehicle. I'm not sure the make and the model -- the Ford Behemoth? The Lincoln Deforester? The Chevy Overcompensatingforsomething? Doesn't matter. You've probably seen the ad, too. It's the one where the gas-guzzling, earth-conquering vehicle in question is making its way through the briny deep -- Holy mother of God, the car is driving underwater -- while sharks swim around it menacingly.

This is not the part I find disturbing.

No, what troubles me about this ad is not that it shows an SUV doing something with ease that an SUV is most definitely not designed to do -- it's the legal disclaimer at the end of the ad. There's no "The lawyers have advised us to remind you not to drive your new car into shark-infested waters," no "Warning: Driver-side air bags will not repel sharks in any meaningful way," not even a "Hey, jackass, if you drive your car into the ocean, you will sink and most likely drown." Instead, the message is plain and simple -- "Simulation."

Now, our friends at Webster's define "simulation" as "the act or process of simulating" -- which isn't a terribly helpful definition -- "a sham object" -- which would seem to be the definition the SUV advertisers were going with -- or "the imitative representation of the functioning of one system or process by means of the functioning of another." And that's where we sort of run into a potential area for misunderstanding. Because when I see the word "Simulation" plastered over footage of a light truck doing seemingly impossible things, the takeaway message I get is that while it's probably not a good idea for me to get behind the wheel of an SUV, rev up the engine, drive into the sea and expect to float gracefully through the waters while sharks stare at me in dumb admiration, I could probably pull it off if I tried hard enough. And I think you'll agree that such a misreading of the ad maker's intent could have disastrous consequences.

Let's pretend for just a second that you're galactically stupid. You see this ad on TV where a guy is able to plow his SUV through swirling waters and deadly sharks with no apparent difficulty. So you go out, you buy the car, you drive it out into the sea... and if you're lucky, the divers find enough of your remains to fill a bucket. Meanwhile, others are suckered in by the same SUV siren song, only to wind up as chum, and before you know it, the waters of the Pacific have turned red with the blood of exceptionally gullible SUV owners.

I'm not necessarily arguing that this would be an unwelcome turn of events. Just mildly troubling is all. Besides, who fishes out all the SUVs from the bottom of the ocean before the oil and gas and window-washing fluid leak out and kill all the sea turtles? Greenpeace? Greenpeace has better things to do than clean up one of your messes, mister.

As bad as the SUV ad is, at least the only people to suffer by it will be remarkably thickheaded lovers of resource-wasting ground transportation and anyone foolish enough to ride shotgun with them. There's another commercial that's just begun airing on a TV set near you that puts everyone -- even attentive drivers and advocates of fuel-efficient vehicles -- at risk of death and dismemberment.

The commercial, I think, is for Honda, though possibly Hyundai, or maybe even Acura. (And isn't it always a sign of effective advertising when the 30-second spot fills me with such rage that my brain can no longer process the good or service I'm supposed to purchase?) A guy and a gal are sitting in a stylish yet affordable looking midsize automobile in some godforsaken snowy wasteland -- Canada, I'm guessing, or possibly one or both of the Dakotas -- and they're watching a flock of birds. So as the birds take off for points south, our young, hip bohemians drive off after them, following the flock both day and night, through good road conditions and bad, until both birds and yuppie couple reach a sunny, tropical destination where each presumably revels in their bliss.

Here's my problem with the commercial: the entire time the guy is chasing after the birds, his eyes are pointed skyward instead of straight ahead, ever vigilant for any hazards that might suddenly appear on the road. The dopey, open-mouthed jackass is even craning his neck outside the window so he can get a better look at the birds. And this is as he's driving at a rapid clip down two-lane highways and icy roads and narrow bridges.

I mean, what if there are schoolchildren crossing the road up ahead on their way to go sing songs at the old folks' home or what if our dopey hero is just a blind curve away from crossing paths with a family of five on their way home from church? They'd better have good reaction times, I guess, or at least financially secure next of kin. Because if it comes down to a choice between following the birds to their own slice of paradise or hitting the brakes to avoid T-boning Grandpa's jalopy, I kind of have a feeling what choice the slack-jawed driver and his idiot bride would opt for -- and it doesn't look good for Gramps.

And all this time, the warning messages on the bottom of the screen tell the viewer at home... absolutely nothing. No "Keep your eyes on the road, please," or "Hands at 10 and 2, buster," or a simple yet effective "Instead of using the migratory patterns of birds to get you from point A to point B, we suggest you spend a couple of bucks on a good road atlas." And that means a generation of newly minted drivers -- a demographic that most recently demonstrated its good sense by spending millions of dollars of allowance money on Britney Spears CDs -- are going to think it's perfectly all right to stare heavenward as they tool around town and directly into the path of oncoming traffic -- all because some car manufacturer's team of Armani-suited corporate lawyers was asleep at the switch.

Obviously, this won't do. Our -- and by "our," I mostly mean "my" -- safety depends on the growing percentage of noodle-brained yokels who take to the road having at least a modest understanding of how to safely operate an automobile. And if that means wallpapering TV advertisements with warnings like "Please do not attempt to pop wheelies while using your cell phone" or "Don't confuse this quiet suburban street for your own personal live-action version of 'Grand Theft Auto,'" then so be it. I want legal disclaimers scrolling on the top and the bottom of the screen like the CNBC stock ticker. I want the voice-over announcer spitting out so many cautions and alarms, he sounds like the surgeon general at a smokers' convention. And I want car commercials where the most dangerous maneuver someone attempts is parallel parking downtown in rush hour.

And for those who ignore the warnings? Well, it's into the SUV and off to the shark tank for them.


TeeVee - About Us - Archive - Where We Are Now

Got a comment? Mail us at teevee@teevee.org.

* * *