In Washington, as in physics, every action has a reaction. So it came as little surprise when, last July, a new ad appeared in USA Today, funded by an outfit known as the Sport Utility Vehicle Owners of America (SUVOA). Critics were asking the wrong question, the ads suggested. The right question was “What Does Jesus Drive?” Jesus, in this case, was Jess Rivera, a proud father and Vietnam veteran. He was also, the ad informed readers, one of 24 million who rely on their SUVs to “carpool friends and family; tow boats, campers and trailers; haul home improvement supplies; and”–lest SUV owners be accused of selfishness–“volunteer to take people to the hospital in snow emergencies.” The new group, reported The New York Times, was “a fledgling association of owners of sport utility vehicles… taking aim at their critics.” The group quickly became Pat Buchanan to the EEN’s Bill Press, its spokespersons available to provide “balancing” quotes for the growing number of reports about SUVs’ poor environmental and safety records.
Last October, I paid a visit to the organization’s Washington, D.C., headquarters, hoping to get a glimpse of SUVOA in action. The headquarters turned out to be the offices of Stratacomm, a very successful Beltway public relations firm specializing in issues affecting the auto industry. Sitting in a plush leather chair in Stratacomm’s state-of-the-art conference room, Ron DeFore, one of Stratacomm’s “principals,” explained that SUVOA’s “main purpose is to educate, so that people know the truth.” DeFore seems most at home when throwing out facts and figures in support of all things SUV. When I called him to set up an interview, he launched, unprovoked, into an explanation of a little-known 1997 study by the National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration which found that making SUVs smaller would do little to improve safety in crashes. The study was “buried” by the Clinton administration, he said.
DeFore and his partner Jason Vines, who works out of Stratacomm’s Detroit office, were perfectly positioned to bring SUVOA into the spotlight last summer. Vines, a former vice president for communications at Ford, also oversaw public relations for Andrew Card, now George Bush’s chief of staff, back when Card was president of the American Automobile Manufacturers Association. Until last year, DeFore handled communications for the Coalition for Vehicle Choice, a short-lived lobbying group run out of Stratacomm’s D.C. office, which was set up by automakers and related interests to fight Congress’ attempts to raise federal fuel-economy standards. All three major domestic automakers–Ford Motor Company, General Motors, and DaimlerChrysler–as well as the industry’s two trade associations, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers and the National Automobile Dealers Association, are current or former Stratacomm clients.
At least one member of the current association, however, entered the debate as an actual SUV owner defending his personal vehicular preferences: Bill Brouse, a 69-year-old retired business executive and SUV owner from Menomonee Falls, Wis., who founded the group to “provide a voice on behalf of the SUV.” Brouse started the organization using only his pension money but late last year called Vines to ask for help funding and publicizing his project. It was a good fit–Stratacomm’s clients rely on sales of SUVs for a major portion of their profits but, at that point, had been slow to fashion an effective response to the continued criticism of their most successful products–and the firm gladly took over Brouse’s association. (Brouse remains on board as a “consultant.”)
One of Vines’s and DeFore’s favorite themes–one that dovetails nicely with the group’s P.R. narrative of underdog SUV owners battling the powers-that-be–revolves around the anti-SUV “misinformation” and “bias” of the mainstream media. For my benefit, DeFore read aloud the opening paragraph of a page-one story from that day’s USA Today, which reported that, “A former Miss America probably will not be charged after the SUV she was driving struck and killed a mother of four” In case I didn’t get it, Vines pointed out the gratuitous use, in a negative context, of the word “SUV,” instead of a more neutral alternative like “vehicle.” DeFore’s assistant, who had joined us in the conference room, shook her head ruefully at the injustice of it all.
Vines, however, had more pressing concerns than mere media bias. He blamed mainstream anti-SUV activists for indirectly provoking a spate of recent incidents in which radical protestors set fire to SUV dealerships. “The anti-SUV zealots,” said Vines, referring to non-violent activists, “are creating an atmosphere where it’s open season on SUV owners.” Worse, he argued, they were forcing Americans to drive unsafe cars. DeFore pointed me to statistics that purport to show that SUVs are in fact safer than smaller cars for their drivers. The safest of all possible worlds, he said, would be one in which everyone drove an SUV. “Take all of the people who may not have bought SUVs because of what they heard,” he implored. “That’s misinformation that costs lives.” When asked about SUVs’ higher rollover rates, Vines admitted that the big vehicles’ higher centers of gravity do make them more likely than smaller cars to flip over, but he stressed that such accidents comprise only a small percentage of overall automobile crashes. He ignored a more important point: that rollovers account for one third of highway deaths.
When I brought up SUVs’ contribution to global warming pollution–they burn more gas than smaller cars, and so produce more carbon dioxide–DeFore stopped me in mid-sentence to “correct my nomenclature.” Carbon dioxide, he insisted, “is not a pollutant. The EPA says it doesn’t meet the criteria. It won’t kill you.” DeFore assured me he’s not here to argue that global warming doesn’t exist–it’s just that there’s not much we can do about it anyway. “We’d have to drain the oceans if we wanted to stop global warming,” Vines piped in over the speakerphone. (Oceans actually absorb small amounts of carbon dioxide.) “Plants need carbon dioxide to produce oxygen,” DeFore added helpfully.
Anticipating charges that SUVOA is just another “astroturf” organization–a business-backed fake grassroots group, designed to give the illusion of popular support to corporate-friendly positions–Vines and DeFore decreed when they took over that the group would accept no corporate funding, and would ban automakers from being members–though not from advertising on SUVOA’s Web site, which bears a prominent picture of a Ford Explorer. When pressed, DeFore admits that some of SUVOA’s funding–almost certainly the majority, since Web site advertising doesn’t bring in much–comes from Stratacomm’s general budget.
But whoever Vines and DeFore represent, there’s no doubt they personally identify with the average SUV owner. Asked what they drive to work each day, Vines told me a Chevy Suburban. As for DeFore? “I’m in the market for a Hummer.”