Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Prius Ad Campaign on LA's Freeways Violates Public Space, Federal Law

Since I now do it so rarely, driving a car makes me feel like I'm in an alternative reality - either a dream state where everything floats by without any tangible sensations, or an exhilarating video game where I maneuver around vehicles and accelerate through curves.

Last night the 110 North was all video game thrill, the lane lines blurring and the curves making me lean in my seat. But today, driving East on the 10, just past Overland, I rubbed my eyes, 'cause what I was seeing disoriented me and intrigued me. Was it a dream? It looked like this:

It's an elaborate flower arrangement like you'd find in the Rose Parade. That orange thing in the middle? It's a 2010 Prius.

Why did it look so odd and disorienting? Because ever since 1965 when the Highway Beautification Act was signed, advertising has been restricted on Interstate Highway landscaping. Toyota themselves recognize this - check this excerpt from their press release:

Since federal regulations require that the Floralscapes be non-commercial in nature, abstract images of the new Prius will appear in different settings, capturing the essence of its marketing campaign developed by Saatchi & Saatchi LA – “Harmony Between Man, Nature and Machine.” All of the images have been approved by California’s department of transportation, Caltrans.

I just spent 20 minutes re-reading the beginning of that sentence, and poring over relevant federal regulations, and I can't find any evidence that this is legal. The flowers obviously form a Prius, and this is obviously an ad campaign. This isn't the only spot Angelenos will be forced to stare at an orange flower 2010 Prius; they're at seven locations along LA freeways.

Will someone with legal training help me out on this one? I'm sure Toyota is prepared to defend their actions, considering that they have the time and money to make sure their multi-million dollar ad campaigns are actually legal. On the other hand, I still think the State Attorney General Ed Brown should bring charges against the parties who facilitated this ad: Mayor Villaraigosa, Caltrans, Toyota, and Saatchi & Saatchi. Attorney General Brown should file charges because the states can lose a portion of their federal highway funding for violating the Highway Beautification Act. Caltrans and Mayor V have definitely violated the act, at least in spirit, and what was a green public landscape is now lost to branding and commercialization.

What are we getting in the trade-off? Is Toyota going to maintain the landscaping around these ads? The press release implies as much:

California-based businesses are contracted to install and maintain the Floralscapes. The non-profit Los Angeles Conservation Corps, which provides training, education and work experience to at-risk young adults and school-aged youth, will maintain the areas surrounding the Floralscapes.

But the passive voice in that first sentence leaves some important questions unanswered. Hmm, who is paying for the Los Angeles Conservation Corps to do this? Toyota? Or our tax dollars? Inquiring minds want to know.

So much irony abounds here. Mayor Villaraigosa celebrates the advertisements as a symbol of "the city's progressive approach to solving environmental issues." He's right, technically. The Prius does pretty well symbolize Mayor Villaraigosa's idea of a greener LA. It uses fancy modern technology to produce basically no results (a Prius gets worse gas mileage than a Geo Metro), it maintains the car's hegemony, its costs are borne by your average Joe and Jane car-buyers, and it pleases big corporate interests. Oh, and let's not forget that Priuses cause just as much congestion as Hummers.

The Prius 2010 campaign intrudes on our lives by design, and this is not the only way it does that. First, we found ourselves in Prius "solar flower" playgrounds, like this one in the Americana. Then, Toyota found a legal loophole so that they could stick their ads in a place where no ads have gone before. LA is already embroiled in controversies about supergraphics and digital billboards. The Prius ads on 7 LA freeways mock the citizen movements against enormous advertisements that have popped up all over our city.

Caltrans and Mayor V have never allowed the everyday organizations that adopt stretches of highway to spread their message to this extent. That's for the best. Anybody and everybody can and will adopt a stretch of highway. I don't want the gun club or the Mormons (sorry, gun-loving LDSes - I'm sure there are many of you out there reading this) creating a flowery mural of this:

Anyway, that's beside the point.

This Prius ad isn't going to disrupt my personal view, and let's face it - even if I did drive a lot, sights and sounds on the freeway have never been that exciting or beautiful. The real scandals here are (1) the ever-encroaching privatization of public space, (2) the successful greenwashing of a technology that really doesn't do much to solve our climate and oil problems (3) the fact that our leaders think we buy this greenwashing, and think they can strike a sketchy deal like this with a huge car company like Toyota.

Come tomorrow, I'll be back on Olympic on my bike, and I won't be looking at this ad. But it should come down.

Then the 10-W at Overland will look like this again.


Anonymous said...

Holy moly! I drive by one on the 60 west everyday and just thought is was pretty landscaping. I like it too, like those palm trees and mission bells carved into the side of the 60/101 interchange. Bummer. I feel used. I guess at least this advertisement was completely ineffective fore. I didn't even realize it was a car design. :( -Julia F

ramonchu said...

I've been trying--though not very hard--to get someone like the Sierra Club on this whole Prius marketing campaign. It's totally illegal, there's no way they can put this crap out there (magazine ads where the Prius sits in a totally green field, back-dropped by a lake in a forest) without violating the same rules that keep cigarette ads from using super models...Joe Linton told me somewhere in Europe they won a case against Toyota, though I haven't seen the evidence. The main problem is everyone in the environmental camp either owns a Prius, wants to own a Prius, still doesn't get that cars are bad no matter what they run on (even though the thing still runs on GAS!), or are being paid off by the Prius ad campaign. Damnit this shit makes me mad.