Huffington's Anti-SUV Ads Misdirected, Critic Charges

By Michael L. Betsch | July 7, 2008 | 8:20 PM EDT

( - While environmentalists are commending Arianna Huffington for scaring Americans away from their beloved sport utility vehicles (SUVs), conservatives are challenging the maverick columnist to define the real target of her campaign against SUVs.

According to Huffington, there exists a "credible link between driving SUVs and our national security." She proceeded to found 'The Detroit Project' and formally accuse SUV owners and manufacturers, via advertisements, of helping Middle Eastern terrorists purchase guns with every gallon of gas purchased at the pump.

"I love the ads. They're right on the money," said John Passacantando, executive director of Greenpeace USA. "My hat is off to Arianna Huffington!"

Passacantando hopes Huffington's two television advertisements will shock Americans into making the connection between the SUV's heavy consumption of fossil fuels and many of the problems facing the United States today.

"Our dependence on oil - U.S. oil, Saudi oil, Iraqi oil, oil from anywhere - is causing enormous problems from global warming ... killing tens of thousands of Americans every year from air pollution, rising seas, spreading diseases," Passacantando said. "And it's supporting some very bad governments that support some very bad characters."

Passacantando blames advertising companies on Madison Avenue for trying to convince millions of Americans that SUVs are safer than smaller, more fuel efficient automobiles. He said Huffington's ads have made Americans reconsider the so-called benefits of SUV ownership.

"It makes them think: 'Hey, wait a second. We've already heard that SUVs tip over more easily, so they're actually more dangerous than we think. Now, they're making our country a more dangerous place because we're buying so much fuel, we're ramping up our dependence on foreign oil, and that's fueling some of these governments that are very hostile to the United States and to U.S. citizens,'" Passacantando said.

The Detroit Project's two controversial 30-second television ads have not received airtime at several stations across the country. Huffington said stations including WABC in New York; WDIV in Detroit; and WABC and WCBS in Los Angeles refuse to air the spots.

"I think that there's a lot of reluctance on the part of broadcasters to put on ads with a political message, particularly if that political message impacts other advertisers who are likely to spend a lot more money," said Jim Naureckas, an analyst for the media watchdog group, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR). "But I don't think that it's a valid reason to keep someone from making a political argument because someone else who has a lot of money is going to be unhappy about it."

Naureckas said SUV advertisements created by America's automobile manufacturers also contain a political advocacy message or an implication, he said, that driving an SUV is a way to get "closer to nature."

"You often see them driving through beautiful, what looks like wilderness areas and presenting them as almost a pro-environmental choice for driving because it gets you out in the natural world," Naureckas said. "Well, in fact, not only is the extra gas that you burn not good for the environment, but driving SUVs off-road is also a pretty damaging thing to do to a wilderness area."

SUV An Easy Target

"If [Huffington] was really serious, her focus would be on gas consumption and not what vehicle you own," said Sam Kazman, general counsel for the Competitive Enterprise Institute. "The reason she does not go after what people do, but what vehicles they own, is because it's much easier to demonize this one vehicle and this one industry."

But Kazman warned that fuel-efficient alternatives advocated by Huffington and environmentalists are based on a "questionable technology" that may not survive in America.

"Hybrids are not the sort of thing that you can toss off dismissively as being an environmentalist fantasy," Kazman said. "The real question is: is it a good technology on its own merits?" he asked.

Kazman said automotive experts at Consumer Reports magazine warned that it would take approximately 20 years for owners of hybrid gasoline-electric automobiles to recover the premium they paid for owning a fuel-efficient car. Kazman added that prospective buyers should realize that automakers make no guarantee that the vehicles will last two decades.

"On the other hand," he said, "Consumer Reports goes on to say the tax breaks that the government is giving - I think right now you get $2,000 credit if you buy one of these - might well make it worthwhile."

IRS Loophole Pays For SUVs

According to Atlanta-based consumer reporter Clark Howard, a loophole exists in current federal tax law that gives SUV owners a generous tax break.

"Many years ago, rules were written into law prohibiting business owners from buying luxury vehicles and then writing them off on their taxes," Clark wrote on his Consumer Action Center website. "Basically, these people were buying luxury cars and using special depreciation rules to get taxpayers to pay for their transportation."

Clark said that rule was repealed almost 20 years ago, but it contained an exemption for commercial and farm trucks. Lawmakers never accounted for the birth of the luxury sport utility vehicle, Clark said.

On top of the truck (and SUV) exemption, Clark said Congress passed tax breaks after Sept. 11 designed to encourage businesses to build new factories and buy new equipment. Those tax breaks, he said, also contained a provision that makes it possible for people who own their own business or who are self-employed to get a taxpayer-subsidized SUV.

"One man featured in the Detroit News bought a $47,000 Ford Excursion, but taxpayers picked up $32,000 of that amount," Clark said. "If he'd bought a passenger car, he would only be able to write off a small amount."

Clark concluded his online advice column by stating that he does not believe Americans should manipulate the law this way. "It's going to end up costing the taxpayers lots of money," he said.

See Related Story:
Improving the SUV

E-mail a news tip to Michael L. Betsch.

Send a Letter to the Editor about this article.