Advertising the Automobile

Up until 1997, it was legal in Canada to advertise cigarettes. The ads that I remember from childhood consistently promised the smoker youth, glamour, the outdoors, fun, excitement, and individuality.

"It took us a century, but eventually we decided not to ban smoking, but to ban advertising on smoking."

As early as 1903, groups like the Women’s Christian Temperance Union began to point out that cigarettes delivered the opposite of what was promised: ill health, poverty and huge costs to society, ranging from deforestation and soil erosion from tobacco growing, to costs to the medical system, both from the smokers themselves, and from those unfortunate enough to breathe their second hand smoke.


It took us a century, but eventually we decided not to ban smoking, but to ban advertising on smoking. Cigarette marketing has been phased out over the last twenty years to the point where cigarettes themselves are no longer visible in stores. They’re still there, but you have to ask for them. Outlawing the active promotion of smoking has resulted in a decline of smoking among Canadians from 50% of the population in 1965 to 15 % in 2017.

"With all the climate change challenges facing us, do we have to devote so many resources to promoting car sales?"

Between the Stanley Cup playoffs and the Olympics, we had the TV on more than usual this summer. And I can’t help but notice that a huge amount of effort is still going into promoting the purchase of automobiles. This doesn’t make a ton of sense to me given the state of our climate. The last week of June saw temperatures in BC, Alberta, and the Pacific Northwest reach temperatures in the 40-45 degree zone, roughly twenty degrees higher than normal for that time of year. The temperatures were worsened by a record dry spring, which left less moisture in the ground to absorb excess heat. Dry ground increasing air temperatures, and hot air temperatures drying out the ground – it’s exactly the feedback loop we were told fifty years ago that we should try to avoid.

"Like with cigarettes, car ads consistently promise the opposite of what they deliver, usually an escape from the doldrums of the city into the wilderness."

With all the climate change challenges facing us, do we have to devote so many resources to promoting car sales? Many people will tell you that a car is a necessity for them, either to earn their livelihood, or because they are too elderly or frail to walk. Fair enough, but if something is truly a necessity, surely people will go looking for it on their own initiative, and don’t need to be marketed to constantly?



Like with cigarettes, car ads consistently promise the opposite of what they deliver, usually an escape from the doldrums of the city into the wilderness. Yet most cars are used to sit in traffic in cities, pavement stretching for miles, robbing the driver precisely of the opportunity to be outdoors. Car use comes with comparable health risks to smoking, from the sedentary status it imposes on the occupants, to the carbon emissions that are changing our climate, to the inevitable collisions, hospitalizations and death.


Maybe we’re not ready yet to live without the automobile, but surely we could live without all this advertising?


JANET MARK WALLACE is a regular blog contributor for Walkable Ottawa.