Fabian Bimmer/AP
Visitors stand beside a virtual waterfall in the exhibition "Level Green - The Concept of
Sustainability" in the "Autostadt" in Wolfsburg, Germany, on Thursday, June 4, 2009.

Car Companies Try to Close Door on "Clunker" Era

August 13, 2009 07:00 AM
by Liz Colville
As Americans are rewarded for abandoning gas-guzzling cars, manufacturers are greening up their images with hybrid and electric offerings, and in Volkswagen's case, an entire exhibit on sustainability.

Volkswagen Devotes Exhibit to Sustainability

Volkswagen recently unveiled a permanent exhibit at its factory, Autostadt, in Wolfsburg, Germany. The exhibit, called "Level Green," is a bright green, undulating room inspired by the international PET recycling symbol that promotes the car manufacturer's sustainable initiatives. The room's structures are made of "wood composite sheets (MDF)" covered with "acrylic-based car paint, developed to guarantee high usability while meeting strict environmental regulations," according to the exhibition materials, reprinted on the blog Dezeen. Touch screens allow visitors to explore the company's projects more closely.

The exhibit is just one example of how car companies, facing a global recession and the recent branding of gas-guzzling cars as "clunkers," are attempting to make cars more sustainable and more appealing to the increasingly money-conscious consumer.

Advertising Focuses on Efficiency, Cost-Effectiveness

Many of these efforts are visible in companies' increased forays into hybrid and electric technology. But these companies also make it very clear in their advertisements that priorities have shifted.

This appears to respond to evidence from a 2007 study by the MindClick Group that showed "[i]t's not just mileage that matters in purchase decisions...environmental performance was a more of a force in buying decisions than most automakers realize," Wired's Autopia blog reported.

To that end, a recent ad campaign for the Honda Insight, a hybrid in direct competition with the Toyota Prius, emphasized its affordability—it's priced about $2,000 lower than the Prius—as well as its "green credentials," Jeremy Korzeniewski wrote for Autoblog Green.

In one ad video, an LED screen displays "a sequence of images that are intended to make the watcher think happy thoughts, such as hugs and kisses, frowns turning upside down and 'general goodwill,'" Korzeniewski writes, quoting a Honda press release reprinted on Autoblog Green.

The ad team was "concerned about the carbon footprint that assembling all of these Honda Insight hybrids would leave," he adds, "so instead of using actual cars, the shoot was created using a small number of vehicles and a few hundred headlight clusters, which were combined using computer software and animations. The team purchased carbon credits to offset the remaining emissions."

Honda certainly isn't the only company moving in this direction, but not all green-tinged car ads have been viewed favorably, either. As John Fuller points out in a HowStuffWorks article on "greenwashing" in car commercials, last year the Swedish car company Saab came under fire for saying that its "Biopower" engines "reduce CO2 emissions by as much as 80 percent." The company "didn't list any figures on CO2 emissions or fuel consumption on its Web site or brochures, which is against the law in Europe," Fuller explains. The company was ordered by Friends of the Earth Europe to "change its advertising significantly or face legal action."

Resuscitating the Electric Car

More than a decade after General Motors and others temporarily abandoned their models, electric cars are still in their formative years, with much debate occurring over how environmentally friendly they really are and how their technology compares to other fuel technologies. But as companies like Toyota and Honda achieve success with hybrids, American companies like General Motors and Ford are following suit—and returning to the electric car, according to EV World, a site devoted to electric cars. Last year, Bill Moore wrote for EV World that "[v]irtually all of the major and mid-tier carmakers have electric car programs in development, with most slated to begin appearing in showrooms in the next several years."

Most recently, Nissan, based in Japan, unveiled the appropriately named Leaf, the company's electric car offering. The car was presented at the company's "eco-friendly world headquarters" at the beginning of August, Michael Bettencourt reported for The Globe and Mail. But the unveiling might have been "the easy part," Bettencourt writes. Despite the recent U.S. success of the Toyota Prius, "it took Toyota 11 years to sell one million Prius gas-electric hybrid models after its 1997 debut in Japan," and Nissan's CEO wants to produce 50,000 Leaf cars in the first year.

Recent Developments: The "Cash for Clunkers" program

The "Cash for Clunkers" program is a U.S. Department of Transportation program that officially goes by the name Car Allowance Rebate System (CARS). It hands out "credits of $3,500 or $4,500, depending on fuel efficiency, toward new automobiles," according to Broadcasting & Cable, which recently reported on "Cash for Clunkers" advertising.

The program is so popular that it ran out of money in about one month; $2 billion more was allotted to the program by Congress at the beginning of August. But the program has skeptics; David Sanger of The New York Times went so far as to deem the program itself a "clunker."

Calling it "a matter of good economics coated with a patina of environmentalism," Sanger cites other critics as saying that the program has three main problems: it is "simply not ambitious enough"; the government is "essentially rewarding car owners who in years past chose to buy gas-guzzlers"; and the government might be focusing too much on cars and not other areas, such as home insulation or health club attendance, both of which could help lower consumer costs in other areas.

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