Episode 113: Dark PR with Grant Ennis
Doug Gordon: This is The War on Cars. I’m Doug Gordon. Okay, so listeners of this podcast are no strangers to the idea that corporations play an enormous role in keeping our cities and our towns choked with cars. Those corporations include auto manufacturers and fossil fuel companies, but they also include an array of industries from highway builders to all of the ancillary businesses that benefit from getting as many people locked into car dependency.
Doug: This all makes it very difficult to change so much as a single parking space, and the ways in which this corporate-enforced status quo is maintained and what to do about it is the subject of a provocative new book. It’s called Dark PR: How Corporate Disinformation Harms Our Health and the Environment. And it’s by Grant Ennis. Grant, welcome to The War on Cars.
Grant Ellis: Thanks a lot, Doug. Great to be here with you.
Doug: You are a lecturer at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, and you talk a lot about activism, organizing, corporate disinformation, and the role subsidies play in creating many of the global problems that we’re gonna talk about in this interview. This is all stuff that is in your book. I found it very informative, very useful. I think there are things in here that will be old hat for War on Cars listeners. There are things in here that will be brand new for War on Cars listeners, and there are things that will give voice or words to ideas that might be floating around in their heads. And I found it very helpful to have it all sort of laid out in the format in which you do it. So obviously, as part of your job you talk about public health and activism. What brought you to put it all down in this book?
Grant Ellis: I think I had a lot of experience early on in my career where people were individualizing environmental issues. That is, mainly that people were focusing on recycling, and I was trying to get them to be politically active. And honestly, every time I tried to raise the issue of let’s go, like, talk to government, let’s find ways to engage government on global warming or other kinds of environmental issues, it all came back to how can we reduce our carbon footprints by doing some kind of individual action? And I wasn’t ever able to really shift the needle.
Grant Ellis: And I started to do more and more research on the ways that people can or can’t be brought into engagement, political engagement. And then this got me into the ways that we get duped by corporations, basically, and that we get duped by governments. I worked as a humanitarian in the Syria crisis—which continues to this day, of course—and the entire community there became a target of a Russian disinformation campaign, and it put a target on everybody’s back. And then when I started working more in public health, I looked back at that time and I said to myself, “Wow, the Russian government and the tobacco industry really used very similar tactics.”
Grant Ellis: And then that led to me thinking back about my time in the environmental community, how, like, wow, the fossil fuel industry uses the same tactics, the automobile industry is using the same tactics. And it really led me to be inspired to put this book together and to look at what is that cross-industry playbook that everybody is using, that we as activists are unable to kind of—at least on the surface level—understand intuitively. And then I wanted to put together a kind of tool to help people understand how that was happening, how corporations and the governments were using these different narratives to distract us.
Doug: So the book breaks this down into three areas of public health: diabetes, road deaths and global warming. These are all related to The War on Cars in many ways. Road deaths, of course, are right in our wheelhouse of the stuff that we talk about all the time. And of course, global warming being the end result of a hundred years of car dependency and fossil fuel consumption. You mentioned this cross-industry playbook, and these industries—the sugar industry, the automobile companies, the fossil fuel companies—not only are they using the same playbook, but they are hiring the same PR companies, the same marketing firms to disseminate this disinformation and misinformation to advance their goals.
Grant Ellis: That’s right. Exactly the same firms working for a large number of industries. Ogilvy, of course, is one. Edelman was exposed recently. Of course, you have the Roper—Roper polling organization it’s called, kind of an older one. These organizations, these PR firms, they work for everybody. And Frank Luntz is probably the best singular example as a person, that the organizations, the firms themselves that work in PR, work across all industries, and they really learn from one another.
Doug: So in your book, you identify what you call “nine devious frames” that are used by these industries. You tie them to history and to policy, and you ask readers to consider the effect they have on public health, and our ability to even organize or even identify what we need to do to change our world, to make our streets safer, for example. So I wanted to walk through them one by one. You kind of group them into, let’s say, thirds almost, so we’ll start with the first three that are sort of grouped under this idea of “big lies.” And the first one is pretty obvious, but it’s worth digging into, and that’s straight up denialism. I think we understand denialism in terms of climate change or global warming, but we don’t really understand it that much in terms of road deaths and car dependency. How does denialism factor into our built environment and car dependency?
Grant Ellis: So denialism for car dependency comes in a number of different forms. I think the main one I want to talk about is just the denial of the deadliness of speed. Every extra mile per hour or kilometer per hour that somebody is traveling at means more deaths. It’s undeniable. We know that more speed means more deaths, and yet you have the automobile industry constantly denying that it leads to more fatalities. It boggles the mind. It absolutely boggles the mind.
Doug: In the book, you write that this idea that speed is not a factor, that denialism of speed as a factor in road deaths. You know, every time there’s a debate online about a particular crash, advocates are very quick to respond with that chart that shows the likelihood of being killed at 20 miles an hour, 30 miles an hour, 50 miles an hour. And I almost want to bang my head against the wall because it’s so obvious. I mean, getting hit by a car at five miles an hour is going to have a very different outcome than getting hit by a car at 75 miles an hour. And so this really was a kind of eye opener for me reading it. It’s like seeing it so clearly put, that there’s just this basic denialism that speed can ever be safe. And that’s one of the things that the road industry and car industry does is like, “Oh, speed can be safe under the right conditions.”
Grant Ellis: Yeah, absolutely. There’s another way of looking at speed also that causes more deaths: when you increase the average speed in a given network, what you’re actually doing is then you’re growing that network because of this thing called Marchetti’s constant. People tend to travel 30 minutes per day as a commute, and that’s like from the ancient Romans until today, people travel about 30 minutes either way. And so as speeds increase, communities sprawl out and become more car dependent. As vehicle miles per capita driven per day increase, you have more deaths per capita. So when you deny speed has any role in road deaths, you’re not just denying the actual kind of like physical impact element, but you’re denying the role it plays in changing the actual built environment itself and our road networks.
Doug: I want to move on to the second one, which is post denialism. So again, in terms of global warming, we understand post denialism as, “Okay, climate change is happening, but it’s good, actually. More carbon in the atmosphere is good for us. Plants will grow bigger,” or whatever lie people are telling. How does it apply to road deaths?
Grant Ellis: When you make a road wider, you end up having people drive more quickly on it because they perceive it to be safer as they’re driving straight through it. Or if you add more lanes, you get the same kind of thing. And what happens is when the road builders go in and build this kind of road that’s gonna end up with more people dying, they call it an “improvement.” So these are called road improvements in almost every English-speaking government’s terminology. And it’s—it’s totally Orwellian. This road that’s gonna kill a lot more people is somehow an improvement. And that’s exactly what we call them. It’s completely post denialism, completely Orwellian.
Doug: I wonder if you could read the quote that you have in the book from 1942 from Herbert Alker Tripp of the London police. I thought this was great.
Grant Ellis: Yeah. He said, “So-called improvement will often build up an accident record on a road that had been virtually accident free. The road that had previously been so dangerous as to be safe.”
Doug: We often joke about it on The War on Cars that we say, you know, if you want drivers to be safe, you don’t need wide roads, you need to have them constantly be afraid of scratching their cars. Because they don’t seem to be afraid of killing people. So I love that quote, and that’s 1942 as well. So pretty amazing.
Grant Ellis: Yeah, definitely. And I like that framing. I’d never heard that before, actually, that we need to be getting people in a driving situation that causes more car scratching. That’s great.
Doug: The third one under the Big Lie devious frame grouping is normalization, which I think we do understand in the context of road deaths, which is that we just now accept in the States 42,000-43000 annual road deaths, 1.3 million worldwide. We accept all the injury and all the chaos and destruction that comes from that. And most people outside of War on Cars‘s audience kind of shrug it off.
Grant Ellis: Right. So you know when you normalize something, you make it disappear from the public agenda as being a problem at all. And the way that the road lobby’s been normalizing road deaths for a very long time—and this is something that Peter Norton gets into really, really great in his work— is by calling road crashes, “accidents.” This is not something that casually happened over time as people started changing the way they say things. The road lobby paid for newspaper articles that called crashes “accidents” in the early 1900s. They did a strong, concerted effort to call these accidents. And they’re no—they’re no accidents. They’re the result of urban planning that uses the motorcar, and that’s just the way that it is.
Doug: You said that, you know, as someone who has worked in public health, you found this to be one of the biggest challenges you’ve encountered in your work. And on an individual level, I know that I’ve spoken to physicians and people who are epidemiologists who simply don’t see this as a public health crisis. And it is indeed really frustrating.
Grant Ellis: Yeah, really frustrating. You have a lot of people that work in academia that research road deaths, and they call it a pandemic—something that’s causing a mass amount of death all around the world. And you have some epidemiologists that completely reject that. They say those are just accidents.
Doug: Okay, so those are the first three devious frames. And like I said, I think people are largely familiar with them in the context of road deaths. Let’s take a quick break and we’re gonna get to the rest.
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Doug: You group the next six frames into what you call pseudo-solution frames or panacea frames. And the first one you call silver boomerangs. Now I think our audience is familiar with a silver bullet. What’s a silver boomerang?
Grant Ellis: So silver boomerang is kind of like a promoted solution that has some kind of rebound effect. Many people that are listening to this show might know that when they work out, they’re more hungry later. When you work out, you go to the gym. It’s much more easy to indulge in a piece of chocolate cake or to eat something absolutely completely unhealthy afterwards like a cheeseburger or something than you would if you hadn’t worked out.
Grant Ellis: And so the sugar industry since the early 1920s has been promoting exercise as the solution to all different kinds of nutritional problems. Specifically because it’s a silver boomerang, it boomerangs back. And the same thing is true for, like, global warming and efficiency as a solution. This is something that Frank Luntz, the famous spin master promoted for George Bush in the George Bush White House was when you talk about global warming, talk about efficiency.
Grant Ellis: And the problem with efficiency is when you make machines more efficient in their energy usage, people use more of them. And we’ve known this for well over a hundred years. It’s known as the Stanley Jevons Paradox. In the case of road death, you have a kind of rebound effect, a silver boomerang when it comes to safety technology. It’s pretty famous in regards to braking especially, or things that the driver can really intuitively feel. As you’re—as you’re driving, if you have better brakes and you as a driver notice that, then you close a tighter stopping distance. So when they’ve looked at studies on, like, anti-lock brakes or even any kind of brake improvements, because the research on this goes back to the 1930s, you tend to see this rebound effect that offsets any kind of otherwise positive benefits. So you don’t see as much death reduction as you would want.
Doug: And I don’t mean to say that we shouldn’t be improving brakes. We definitely should be improving brakes. We should be definitely improving safety technology. It’s not bad, but the problem is the way that industry frames solutions to road deaths as something that could be solved by these silver boomerangs, which doesn’t really seem to be the case.
Doug: I’m only laughing because I had put into the outline and you just beat me to it. I said, “Grant, this is the part of the interview where you have to say, ‘Look, safety technology isn’t a bad thing. We need more safety technology.'” But I think it’s a really good point, and it’s worth noting that we’ve just had here in the States two of the worst years for traffic violence, for road deaths in at least three decades. And that’s at a time when safety technology is arguably better than ever, with more radar, more lidar, more cameras, more braking technology, more driver distraction and drowsiness detection, things like that, and yet road deaths keep going up. Okay, so we’re talking about safety technology. That propels us to the next devious frame, which you simply call “magic.”
Grant Ellis: Yeah, and the magic frame is stuff that I don’t think anybody ever really believes will solve the problem. So in the case of road deaths, the autonomous car has been promoted as something that will completely eliminate the road death problem for nearly a hundred years now. I think since the early 1940s, we’ve been seeing this kind of promise of more technology will come next year and we will make it so the car is completely self-driving, and then we won’t have to worry about road deaths. And you hear these promises year after year after year.
Doug: And you mentioned that this is a promise that the auto industry in general has been making this promise forever. And there’s a great example you use in the book of a 1956 General Motors promotional film that was looking at what driving would be like in 1976.
[ARCHIVE CLIP: Hello, tower. This is Firebird 2304. How are things on the safety autoway?]
[ARCHIVE CLIP: Tower to Firebird Two. All traffic moving in normal pattern.]
[ARCHIVE CLIP: We’re heading for Chicago. Please route us through. Over.]
[ARCHIVE CLIP: You’re now under automatic control. Hands off steering.]
Doug: So the idea then is that this magic technology is just around the corner, we never have to stop and say, “What is the solution that we need to stop deaths right now?” I call this sort of the “Ooh, shiny problem” that the media falls for all the time. You know those cable news segments, you know the Wired magazine profile, you’ve seen them a hundred times. You know, “This new robot car will revolutionize driving technology and safety.” And you have a great quote from Greg Shill, who is a former guest of the podcast, who says that this idea is morally indefensible.
Grant Ellis: Yeah, absolutely. You’re promising to solve a problem that involves children and the elderly and people of every age dying, and you’re saying we’ll deal with it tomorrow by a solution that we haven’t yet invented? That’s completely morally indefensible. I completely agree with Dr. Shill.
Doug: Okay, so the next devious frame you call the “treatment trap.” And I think we—again, we understand this in terms of personal health as, you know, not avoiding the disease in the first place and the things that contribute to it, whether that’s lifestyle or environmental factors, but some magic pill that’s going to come later that we’re gonna have to pay pharmaceutical companies for. How does it apply to cars and road deaths?
Grant Ellis: The treatment trap frame for road deaths and for cars is quite a sad one. It’s ambulances, essentially. I mean, we all need ambulances. We all want ambulances to be available if we ever get in a crash, but the automobile industry is always promoting this idea that we can solve the road death problem with more ambulances, with better surgeons and better treatments of trauma. I mean, General Motors has some kind of trauma award that they regularly give out to doctors for the treatment of car crash injuries. They promote this idea that we don’t need to prevent crashes, we can just deal with them after they occur.
Doug: Yeah, I think about that every time I see—you know, we’ve all seen those slow-motion videos of crash test dummies. You know, the car being slammed into a wall at some testing facility. And, you know, this is usually touted by the auto industry as, like, “Look how safe our cars are. If you get into a crash, you’ll go into an airbag. The side airbags will deploy, you’ll be fine.” And I think about that, like, I don’t want to experience something that horrible and violent even if I survive with minor injuries. Like, that doesn’t seem like a success to me. A success to me is avoiding the crash in the first place by—I don’t know, not ever having to drive.
Grant Ellis: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. And that’s the underlying business model of the automobile industry is getting people to drive more. So any solution that would lead to less vehicle miles traveled or vehicle kilometers traveled is really not gonna be in their interest. I mean, in this case, they’re promoting the solution that would get people to drive the most possible up until the moment that they die or nearly die, and the promoting ambulance is the solution. And again, a caveat: I really hope that there’s an ambulance there should I ever get in a crash. I’m all for ambulances, it’s just the way that corporations are framing and trying to downplay more effective measures that’s problematic.
Doug: Okay. So right now I want to challenge you a little bit and channel that listener out there who is listening to this and saying, “Why not both?” You know, we need the safety technology. We need the post-crash care and trauma response, and we need to reduce driving. And you argue in the book that we can’t do both. Why?
Grant Ellis: Yeah, we can’t do both in terms of framing, in terms of actually needing ambulances and safety technology and all these other things. Of course we need those things, but in framing, that’s not how it works. In framing, you have a vote at the end of the day between different bodies within legislature, different individuals in the case of a referendum. You’re still gonna have some competing groups of options at the very end—usually yes or no. And when you have it coming down to yes or no, do we want better urban planning so we don’t have to drive as much, or would we like to have more cars forever, when that becomes kind of your option set, if you provide more solutions and more things that don’t really solve the underlying problem but distract from what does, when that moment comes where that vote happens, you’re gonna get less support for the thing that really works. Even if it’s very small amount of difference, that’s hugely problematic.
Grant Ellis: For example, Brexit came down to something less than four percent. Four percent. So that means all we would have needed would be to influence four percent of the population in the other direction. It just needs to be a few in a hundred, and I think we can all agree that we know some people that would be more likely to be influenced in one way or another on a given issue if they were exposed to different kinds of messaging. People are very responsive to messaging. The CEO of the Frameworks Institute often says that it’s the main way we can predict how likely someone is to respond to a message or not is how many times they’ve been exposed to it. And then this thing with being able to do both with framing, we just can’t. In terms of providing ambulances, yes, we can do that, but in terms of media messaging on the part of politicians, on the part of industry, you can’t be promoting multiple frames at the same time.
Doug: I was thinking about this in the context of electric vehicles and how they are being thought of in cities. Now obviously in places that are completely car dependent, we need every car to be electric as quickly as possible. But, you know, here in New York, for example, we have a sort of let’s do both, or an all-of-the-above strategy to electric vehicles, which is yeah, we should be promoting cycling and making our streets safer for walking, but we should also be putting in as many electric vehicle charging stations as possible. And then what happens is that those electric vehicle charging stations get put along the curb, locking in car dependency for another generation or two at least, which is kind of the most physical manifestation of the we-can’t-do-both idea that you’re talking about.
Grant Ellis: Yeah, absolutely. You’re seeing it right now in practice how that kind of argument plays out in New York. It’s really too bad. I mean, I often say that political will is zero sum. You can’t be splitting and dividing public opinion and thinking you’re gonna really get what you want.
Doug: Okay, so the next one I think is very familiar to a War on Cars audience, but you really have a great way of talking about it in the book, and that devious frame is victim blaming.
Grant Ellis: Yeah, this idea that the individual person who was perhaps either killed in a crash or was driving a vehicle is to blame for that crash is uniquely insidious, to be honest with you. And it’s something that the automobile industry, they didn’t invent it, but they probably would have had they had the opportunity. They popularized the term “jaywalker” in the early 1930s to keep the focus of the blame on the deviant individual.
Grant Ellis: I sometimes regret actually calling this frame “victim blaming.” It might be better to call it “individualism.” Some people in the case of road deaths call it “safety individualism,” which I think is pretty good framing, actually. You see it manifest in a number of different kind of formats. You see media campaigns, education programs that focus on individuals. You see this promotion of signage that focuses on the individual as a solution, and these things are all wholeheartedly promoted by the automobile industry. And they promote it much more than any other kind of measure. This focus on the individual seems to be the core strategy of most car companies, and it’s very effective. When you are finally able to convince somebody or a government official that road deaths are really a public policy problem, they’re a public health problem, the next thing you get is ah, it’s because people are such idiots. We need to just train these people to not have such remarkably dangerous behaviors. These things that corporations are trying to get us all to do, they don’t work, and we’re having a lot of people die because we continue to blame the victim.
Doug: There’s an example you use in the book. I think we’ve all seen pretty bad, insidious corporate-backed public service campaigns where corporations partner with governments or just put out the public service announcements themselves. And I think we’ve all seen versions of those that do blame the individual. You know, the idea of, like, look both ways before you cross the street or wear reflective clothing or things like that. You include an example from 2014. It’s a PSA I hadn’t seen from China. It was produced by Buick and General Motors of Shanghai. I found this to be maybe one of the worst examples—or best examples of the worst thing, if you could put it like that. We’ll play a little bit of it. It’s in Chinese.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, advertisement: [speaking Chinese]]
Doug: And then what we’re seeing basically are all these people who were victims of car crashes, who lost limbs, who are in wheelchairs, describing their crashes and their injuries. And they are holding up traffic signs. And I wonder if you could tell us what does the chyron say, which is in English.
Grant Ellis: So the first victim says, “At the time, if I had just waited for a second, this might not have happened.” And then another one says, “When I woke up the day after my surgery, I said to my mom, ‘How am I going to carry on living?’ I asked if it was possible to reattach my arm, but she said that my arm was too badly damaged and that there was no way they could save it. I was told they had to accept my fate, but at the time I just couldn’t.” Man, I find these so emotional.
Doug: I had a similar reaction to you of, like, choking up a little bit when I watched this, and then followed by rage, because the tagline of this is “Signs are there for a reason. Obey the rules.” And the campaign was basically these people standing if they could, or sitting in their wheelchairs, holding up street signs, like, shaking them in front of drivers. And then there are stats in there, and it says, “Every three minutes in China someone is injured from a traffic accident. Every 10 minutes someone dies from one. Over half could have been avoided if they just followed traffic signs.” And the “They just,” I wanted to throw my computer across the room because no public health campaign can be predicated on the idea of “Just do this.” Just eat healthy, just consume less fossil fuels, just obey the signs. And there isn’t anything in here that’s even directed at drivers, not that that would be effective either, but it’s all complete victim blaming.
Grant Ellis: Yeah. These kinds of efforts to keep the locus of responsibility on the individual are well documented in framing research to reduce support for political action. So the more times you, Doug, or me are exposed to this message, the less likely we would be to vote for better urban planning policy, less parking, more bike lanes. This kind of messaging is really effective specifically because the person responsible is the individual and it’s not the political.
Doug: Yeah, we have a good bonus episode with Jesse Singer, author of There Are No Accidents, all about PSAs. And again, it’s not even that they don’t work, you talk a little bit about this idea that we need to go from changing the informational environment to the material environment, and then you break that down into how we’d go about that using three levers: price, distance and time.
Grant Ellis: The material environment meaning like the things that materially change us versus information environment, I think is a really important distinction we need to be making a lot more. In the case of road deaths, the price of traveling in a car. Right now we’re subsidizing automobile travel around the world. I mean, the cost of fossil fuels is being subsidized by something like $7 trillion a year—that’s trillion with a T—according to the International Monetary Fund. So we’re actively reducing the price of driving, incentivizing people to drive. We’re also providing all kinds of subsidies for the cars in different ways, and depending on the country, this amounts to thousands of dollars.
Grant Ellis: But you also have distance. So it’s not just the price of driving, but how convenient is it? So when you put parking inside of somebody’s building, or you force them to have minimum parking requirements, you’re making driving so proximate to you that you’re incentivizing it. So by making it so that people don’t need cars, by making other things proximate to them, the whole idea behind the 15-minute city is exactly that, where you bring everything within a 15-minute walking distance for people and they don’t need to drive. And then time, and you don’t see quite as much for road deaths but we could be seeing it. You have it for traffic at the moment. You have congestion charging, I believe, in New York and other places around the world.
Doug: That’s coming, yeah.
Grant Ellis: But imagine you had off-peak high road death hours where that also cost more. So for example, you often will have, like, congestion during rush hour, but then—I mean, I’m making a term now, but road death hour would probably be the middle of the night, or usually after the bars close. So if you made driving more expensive during those hours, you could then be factoring in for time. But any manner of shifting the price of driving, making it so that it’s cheap and proximate to do other things except for driving, and then you can charge more for driving during dangerous times. By using these levers, you can really reduce road death. And I think these are the things we need to focus on a lot more.
Doug: Okay, so the next two devious frames you lump into one category that you call “complicated frames,” and the first one you call a knotted web.
Grant Ellis: Yeah, so I talk about the knotted web frame, and I call it knotted web frame because the convoluted and interconnectedness of this category of framing. A lot of other terms that are sometimes used for it are like, systemic rather than structural or complexity. Complexity is probably the most commonly-used version of it. And you have a lot of research—especially out of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine—that’s tested this framing and looked at this framing, and they found that it’s very effective at getting people just completely disengaged. It just assumes something’s being done, but it’s never entirely clear what that is. And in the case of road death, you have a lot of automobile manufacturers and others saying that road safety is complex and that road death is complex.
Doug: On that note, I want to play this video clip. It’s from the European Automobile Manufacturers Association, and it is a great example of that knotted web solution that you’re talking about.
[ARCHIVE CLIP: Road safety is complex, and depends on lots of different factors and interactions. Cutting-edge vehicle technology is just one piece of this complex safety puzzle. Equally important are the behavior of road users, as well as the maintenance and design of roads. Indeed, 90 percent of all accidents today are linked to human error like when we are distracted, fail to anticipate a situation or break traffic rules. Unclear traffic signs, poor lane markings and badly-designed roads also have a major impact on safety. In other words, in order to save even more lives in the future, we need to ensure that safe vehicles are driven by safe drivers on safe roads.]
Doug: The thing that jumped out for me for that video is the “equally responsible” language, that it’s not just the design of our road, the design of our vehicles, but it’s also the behavioral choices that we make when we’re behind the wheel that factor into whether or not a crash occurs.
Grant Ellis: Yeah, absolutely. And it’s not as if some kind of mix of solutions isn’t necessary sometimes, or that things aren’t complex, but the way that this framing effects political will for action, it’s the most insidious part of all of this.
Doug: And that stat, you know, 90 percent of crashes are caused by human error, but that human error can come from things like a blind spot that you didn’t see in the design of your vehicle, or a road that enables high-speed driving. That might be chalked up to human error.
Grant Ellis: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. I mean, 100 percent of road crash fatalities involve a human. So I think they underestimated that number there.
Doug: Someone somewhere made a mistake. Exactly, yeah. So the next one, and that’s related to this knotted web, is the idea of multifactorial framing.
Grant Ellis: So this is a concept that’s been critiqued in the public health community for quite a long time, but was promoted in the ’70s by the tobacco industry. And we know this because it came out as one of the leaked documents in the famous case against the tobacco industry that I believe concluded in the very early 2000s. Some whistleblower sent tons and tons of documents, and one of them was what’s called the Roper Proposal or the Panzer Memo sometimes. And it was this PR person for the tobacco industry who says, “Listen, denialism, denying the role of tobacco in health, it’s really not gonna work forever. We need to do much more.”
Grant Ellis: And what he suggested was that as the tobacco industry, they promote multifactorialism, and essentially that they weaponize it. Coming out of that memo, you see this series of different industries using this framing all over the place. The sugar industry was the first to adopt it after that, but then you had Ogilvy and Mather, they promoted the “all of the above” global warming solution in the mid 2000s, which has been popularized and now is widely used, the “All of the above.” And it’s actually this idea that to solve global warming, we need to be doing everything at once. What’s extra scary is they’re saying we also need to be continuing to pump fossil fuels, which is particularly insidious.
Grant Ellis: But every industry is now—is now using this. It’s something I think that we can infer at least that PR companies are often promoting. And part of the reason why is this concept of the dilution effect: when you’re exposed to multiple messages instead of just one, you’re less likely to act. And so in the case of road deaths, what we saw is in the early ’30s, industry started promoting what they called the three Es: they were safety education, enforcement and engineering. And when you use multiple solutions at once, a multifactorial approach, you’re really diluting the stuff that works best. So I guess we would say engineering solutions probably are very strong, but even arguably—I mean, there’s other kinds of ethical challenges, but enforcement is also something that can still reduce crashes. You might have police violence and you might have these other kinds of problems, but in terms of crashes, you can reduce those. But you’re diluting all of that, and you’ll probably just end up with safety education campaigns.
Doug: Yeah, one of the points you make in the book is that oftentimes when we dilute things like this and have this multifactorial approach that the industries prefer, things like individual safety culture tend to rise to the top.
Grant Ellis: Exactly. And that’s the—that’s the critique of this three Es strategy that we’ve seen as a corporate strategy to dilute political will for really more effective solutions.
Doug: Yeah, I remember talking to a Swedish Vision Zero expert, someone who’d worked on the program for a long time. He said that the way to think about it is a very large E for “Engineering,” that that really is above all else the way that you get to zero deaths. A slightly smaller E with an A before it for “Automated enforcement.” There’s some role for in-person enforcement, but traffic cameras, speed cameras, stop sign cameras, things like that. And that education would only really come into it if you are educating people about the specifics of the program. So your city is going to drop the speed limit to 20 miles an hour, you launch a major education blitz announcing that that change is coming. You don’t not have the policy, but say, “Hey everybody, drive safely.” You say, “20 miles an hour is coming. It’s going into effect January 1.” And that’s the only role really that education plays. But like we’re saying, corporations prefer these things having equal weight because ultimately it’s just gonna go back to the individual at the end of the day.
Grant Ellis: Absolutely. And I think this multifactorial strategy doesn’t get the credit that it deserves. I think people focus on—and myself included, and I think Jesse Singer included, in our day to day, we focus on the challenges of safety individualism when we’re talking about framing. But I think this multifactorial strategy used by corporations falls under the radar, and I think we need to do more to expose it.
Doug: Do you think car companies are relying on this more because they do recognize that the public is getting wise to the problems with cars? I mean, part of this with the Roper Report was this idea that the public was getting wise to the idea that there was a direct link between smoking and things like lung cancer and emphysema, and it was undeniable that this was happening. And so basically they’re saying, “Look, we can’t just deny it anymore. We have to kind of throw everything against the wall to dilute and distract people from the structural changes that might be coming our way if we’re not careful.” I wonder if the auto industry is starting to feel those effects.
Grant Ellis: I think that’s absolutely the case. I think—I think you’re spot on. And I think it underscores for us as advocates that we need to rethink our framing, because I think a lot of the time we’re all so eager to just say, “Let’s throw a bunch of things at the wall and see what sticks.” And for framing, the framing that we need to be doing as activists, as organizers, is figuring out what would work best, and then focusing on it. And then getting other people to gather around our vision and advocate for that political change.
Doug: So that’s a perfect segue to the last part of your book, which I think might be the most challenging for people to read, not in a—in a difficult way, but in a way of changing their thinking. And it’s something I valued about this book because it did change my thinking about my own activism and where I direct my fire, basically. Now it’s really easy in this day and age, especially with social media, to direct our fire at, say, the CEOs of large corporations. You say that that’s the wrong target. Why?
Grant Ellis: I think it’s important to recognize that the CEOs of these large corporations are doing what they’re doing because they are being incentivized to do that. The laws that we have at the moment, were incentivizing corporations to maximize profit and then by extension, were incentivizing CEOs to seek that profit. I don’t mean to be apologetic to people that are doing things that at the end of the day create harm, but our interest shouldn’t be to seek vengeance, you know, and, like, target the people that we feel like are to blame. Our efforts should be aimed at actually achieving change. And to actually achieve change, we need to change those incentives so that any CEO, it could be CEO A or B or C, any person could be in that role, and they wouldn’t be incentivized to create harm. That any corporation could be selling a service or a product, and they won’t be incentivized to do that in a way that’s harmful, or they wouldn’t be incentivized to make money off of a product that’s harmful. But at the moment, our laws are incentivizing these kinds of behaviors on the part of corporations, of CEOs.
Doug: And one of the interesting points you make in the book is that corporations actually kind of like it when we direct our fire at them, at the Mark Zuckerbergs or the CEOs of the automobile companies or, you know, big processed food companies, because they can get rid of that person and just replace them with someone else who might be a little more palatable to the public. It’s another form of individualism, basically, that doesn’t get rid of the underlying problem.
Grant Ellis: Definitely. I mean, especially, I think Mark Zuckerberg is an excellent example of this. Over the last 15 years, we must have seen him in front of Congress apologizing for one thing or another like every other year. [laughs] And every time it’s like, “I promise I will be doing better next time.” Oftentimes we see or hear about the CEO being fired or replaced, only to have somebody that’s doing exactly the same thing in their place. And we don’t see change. It doesn’t change anything. We need to be seeing changes to the public policies, to the politics and changes to what we’re incentivizing.
Grant Ellis: And in the case of road deaths in the United States, it’s very clear that US government policy is incentivizing as many vehicle miles driven per person per year as possible. I saw a statistic recently that said the average person—including children and the elderly—in the United States, drives 25 miles per day.
Grant Ellis: And that’s great for car companies. That’s their business model. They want that number to go up. And we know that for every vehicle mile driven, we have a certain amount of deaths. And so really to reduce that death, we need to be talking about why do our public policies incentivize those 25 miles per person per day? And changing those policies, we need to be removing parking subsidies, free parking, we need to be doing a whole number of things to reduce the subsidies for fossil fuels, et cetera, et cetera.
Doug: So along the lines of picking the right target, one of the things that you argue in the book that I think might be hard for some people to wrap their heads around is that politicians are also in some ways the wrong target. I found this a little challenging, because they are the people who are the gatekeepers to the structural change that we need. They write the laws, they dole out the subsidies, and they are the ones dangling the incentives in front of these corporations. They are oftentimes bought and wholly owned by these corporations. So why are politicians, in your mind, sort of the wrong target as well?
Grant Ellis: Politicians are also responsive to incentives. They’re not so different from CEOs. I mean, Barack Obama is a great example. I was very happy, and I think we all were when Barack Obama won his first election as president. But every year, I believe—I believe every year that he was president, he increased fossil fuel subsidies. It’s not like having the right person in power is going to be changing things. It’s really the continued pressure from activist organizations that leads to this kind of sustained change that we really want to be seeing. We need organized mass movements, and we need those movements to be continuing to put pressure, especially on the quote-unquote, “good politicians.” Because without that pressure, those good politicians or the quote-unquote, “bad” ones are just gonna be doing whatever the corporate lobbyists are—are paying them to do when we’re not paying attention.
Doug: So there’s a final part of your book where you really talk about organizing and successful tools for organizing. We don’t have time to go into every piece of it. I urge people to pick up the book if they’re really interested in the sort of structural changes we need to fix at the city level, at the street level, at the US government level, at the planetary level to read this part. But I found it really interesting that, you know, you offer these seven tips for organizing, seven elements of successful past organized movements from the civil rights movement to certain parts of the environmental movement, all of which corporations work to undermine.
Doug: And the first one just sticks right out, and that’s trust. And you write, “Citizens gain trust in one another through regular interaction.” And I read that and I thought—I mean, certainly in the work we do in The War on Cars and the work that our listeners are doing, that is the thing that is most undermined by car-centric planning. That we reduce the amount of social interactions and personal interactions we are able to have with each other because we are encased in steel and glass, and actually bumping into each other is quite difficult. And so those one-on-one conversations that lead to organizing and movement building are almost impossible to have the more dispersed we are.
Grant Ellis: Yeah, absolutely. And that’s one of the most unfortunate side effects of urban sprawl is that people don’t run into one another. They’re stuck in their cars, as you said. What we know very well is that the more that people are living closely with one another in mixed-use communities where you have businesses and—and residential buildings, the more that people casually and unexpectedly run into each other. And when they want to, have the ability to organize. And this model of car dependency where we’re just spread out over vast amounts of land means that we only ever come together when we are specifically planning to do so. And the burden of entry in that kind of scenario, the difficulty of doing that, makes it so we organize a whole lot less. It’s not entirely impossible, it just makes it a lot harder. And so we’re undermining civil society—and democracy by extension—by pursuing this continued car-dependent model of development.
Doug: Grant, thank you so much for joining The War on Cars. This book is—it’s like an all-star hits of The War on Cars. You pull in so many pieces of great research, a lot of names and things that might be familiar to people that I found it to be so helpful to have it laid out where I could read from beginning to end and really question my own organizing, my own advocacy. I encourage everybody to pick up a copy. Grant Ennis, thank you for joining The War on Cars.
Grant Ellis: Thank you very much, Doug. Pleasure to be here.
Doug: That’s it for this episode of The War on Cars. Once again, thank you to Grant Ennis for joining us. You can purchase a copy of Dark PR: How Corporate Disinformation Harms Our Health and the Environment at your local bookstore. Or you can support independent booksellers by visiting our official Bookshop.org page. You will also find titles by other podcast guests and lists of some of our favorite books. I’ll put a link in the show notes.
Doug: If you like what we do on the podcast, please become a Patreon supporter. Go to TheWaroncars.org. Click “Support Us” and enlist today. Membership starts at just $3 per month. You will get access to exclusive bonus episodes, ad-free versions of regular episodes like this one, and we will send you stickers.
Doug: We want to send a big thanks to our top Patreon supporters: Charley Gee of Human Powered Law in Portland, Oregon, Virginia Baker, Mark Hedlund and the Parking Reform Network.
Doug: Thanks also to our friends at Cleverhood for sponsoring this episode. For a 15 percent discount on some of the most thoughtfully-designed gear for biking and walking, go to Cleverhood.com/waroncars. You can use coupon code SNOWCAPE when you check out.
Doug: This episode was recorded by Walter Nordquist at the Brooklyn Podcasting Studio. It was edited by Ali Lemer. Our theme music is by Nathaniel Goodyear. I’m Doug Gordon, and on behalf of my co-hosts, Aaron Naparstek and Sarah Goodyear, this is The War on Cars.
[ARCHIVE CLIP: Here we go on the high speed safety lane. Oh, this is the life! Clean, cool, comfortable. Mind if I smoke a cigar?]