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U.S.: Controversial Ads Exploit Fear Of Terrorism

  • Bruce Jacobs

In the United States, a public interest group is using the fear of terrorism to push its agenda to reduce U.S. dependence on imported oil. The group plans to broadcast two television advertisements that they hope will raise awareness of the issues involved. But as RFE/RL reports, the advertisements, which link oil imports to terrorism, are already generating controversy.

Prague, 10 January 2003 (RFE/RL) -- A public interest group calling itself the Detroit Project commissioned the two advertisements, which are aimed at reducing U.S. dependence on oil imports.

A founder of the group, commentator and newspaper columnist Ariana Huffington, said she and some of her friends in Hollywood had to act because no one else was showing leadership on the issue at a national level. "Both political parties have failed to issue a call to action at a time when every poll showed the American people were ready to act, to do something."

What Huffington wants Americans to do is stop buying big, gas-thirsty vehicles, noting that the U.S. consumes 25 percent of the world's oil reserves. One advertisement begins with the voice of a child and shows a man filling his large sports utility vehicle, known as an SUV, at a gas station. "This is George. This is the gas that George bought for his SUV."

The commercial then shows an oil executive and a map of the Middle East, including a close-up of Saudi Arabia. "This is the oil company executive who sold the gas that George bought for his SUV. These are the countries where the executive bought the oil that made the gas that George bought for his SUV."

Then, the commercial shows a group of masked men in a desert scene, holding automatic weapons. "And these are the terrorists who get money from those countries every time George fills up his SUV."

The ad ends with the printed words: "Oil money supports some terrible things. What kind of mileage does your SUV get?"

Within the commercial's 30 seconds, there is no effort to distinguish between the countries of the Middle East and the militant groups in the region that fund terrorist activities. The Detroit Group's message is clear: Money that buys Middle East oil goes to support terrorism.

Although the Detroit Project paid to run the advertisements in Detroit, Los Angeles, New York, and Washington, some local affiliates of the national television networks are refusing to run the ads, saying they are too controversial.

A local ABC executive in New York told "The New York Times" that the advertisements make statements that are not backed up with proof. A sales manager at a car dealership in Detroit said it doesn't make any sense to link terrorism with gas-guzzling vehicles, while many supporters of the U.S. auto industry point to its role in helping to revive the American economy after the terrorist attacks of 11 September.

A second advertisement from the Detroit Project uses ironic humor to make the same point as the first. It shows a series of actors portraying average Americans making statements taking responsibility for terrorist acts:

Woman #1: "I helped hijack an airplane."

Woman #2: "I helped blow up a nightclub."

Then the actors make statements supporting their right to own an SUV:

Woman: "What if I need to go off-road?"

Man: "Everyone has one."

At the end of the commercial, are the words, "What is your SUV doing to our national security?" It also asks the automobile industry, centered around the U.S. city of Detroit, to start making more fuel-efficient, electric-gasoline hybrid vehicles.

Huffington says the ads are a parody of TV commercials sponsored by the Bush administration's Office of National Drug Control Policy that link drug use with terrorism. In one of those ads, a youth says, "Last weekend I washed my car, hung out with a few friends, and helped murder a family in Colombia."

The SUV advertisements were shown to a number of people outside the Los Angeles Auto show. Many expressed pessimism that the campaign would have much of an effect. One man said it doesn't make sense to try and trace your money after it leaves your pocket: "It didn't change my mind about nothing. You see, if you put your money in the bank, you don't know where that money went. You go down to the drugstore and buy some aspirin, you don't know where the money went. I am not even worried about that. If I want an SUV, I am going to buy an SUV."

But Huffington, the leader of the Detroit Project, says SUVs are tremendously wasteful and that Americans should seriously consider driving something else. "During World War II, we were rationed to three gallons [about 11 liters] of gas every week, which is about what an SUV consumes in a trip back and forth to Starbucks."

Huffington used her nationally syndicated newspaper column to appeal for donations and says the Detroit Project has raised now $200,000 to run its campaign on American television. The ads are expected to air starting on 12 January.