City street wars
What surprises me is the number of young people who say they can't stand bicyclers. (GW)
by Melissa Lafsky
October 18, 2011
Last week, GM announced it was pulling a print ad because it was insulting to bicyclists (the gist was that college students should buy a car rather than ride a bike in order to impress women and generally be “an adult”). The ad ran in college newspapers across the country, and started an uproar on the web when it was picked up by Bike Portland and other cycling blogs. The outraged biking public took to the internet, peppering GM’s Twitter feed and Facebook page with complaints — and the carmaker was quick to equivocate, offering profuse apologies via social media and quickly yanking the ad.
The hubbub is interesting for two reasons. The first is that it highlights the very real stigma attached to riding a bike — a stigma that still exists despite the surge of popularity in biking over the last few years. Granted, the bike world has come up fast and furious, building a large presence in the blogosphere that, as demonstrated here, is capable of organizing en masse for a united cause. But the mainstream attitude persists that biking is not associated with status and wealth and all the other concepts carmakers work so hard to sell us. Which isn’t to say that a tipping point for biking won’t come (perhaps a remake of 40-Year-Old Virgin in which he’s teased for having a car?). But it isn’t here yet.
The second point goes to the existential dilemma carmakers are faced with when dealing with this vocal and growing biking community. On the one hand, GM and its competitors have a clear business interest in stamping out the bike movement and encouraging pro-car sentiment: they need to create more customers. On the other hand, the PR costs of putting down biking are clearly dire — now, GM effectively looks like a jerk, and their attempt to exploit a very-real public attitude has backfired. There’s also the easy target of environmental impact — while GM just announced its first all-electric vehicle, it (along with every other car manufacturer) has a long way to go before its cars bid adieu to fossil fuels.
So what’s a carmaker to do? Is there any option besides sitting back and letting a burgeoning group of consumers undermine your business? Car companies could look for sneakier ways to market — but GM learned the hard way that anything too blatant will mean megatons of trouble dumped on your head. Most likely, automakers will continue doing what they do best — spending untold millions to make cars look as “cool” and desirable as possible.
Of course, if the cries of angry bikers help incentivize widescale adoption and production of EVs, then perhaps we can all be thankful.
Image courtesy of Bike Portland.