What Are They Thinking? GM Executives Must be Living on Saturn!

An Ad for the Saturn VUE TM Likens the SUV to Endangered Arctic Species
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Saturn AdSaturn Ad

Ad Text: Introducing the Saturn Vue TM . At home in almost any environment.

There are several possible explanations for the astoundingly insensitive "Introducing the Saturn VUE" ad which ran in the March 11, 2002 edition of Newsweek.

  • Saturn/GM executives believe that "what's good for General Motors is good for the environment, and vice versa." (Saturn is a wholly owned subsidiary of General Motors.)
  • Saturn/GM executives are so busy they have never heard of global warming or climate change.
  • Saturn/GM executives have a macabre sense of humor, and derive amusement from rubbing our noses in the degradation of the planet they help cause.
  • Saturn/GM executives are living on Saturn.

Up until now, CorpWatch has never given a Greenwash Award to simple environmental image ads by auto companies. TV and print ads have so many examples of gas guzzling, unsafe cars incongruously pictured in dramatic natural landscapes that these ads are usually not original enough to deserve an Award.

But the depiction of an SUV on what looks to be a melting polar ice floe in the company of wildlife is either so ironic, so arrogant or so ignorant (it's hard to tell which), that we have made an exception and given this Greenwash Award to Saturn and its parent company, GM.

The irony is SUVs are one of the causes of global warming, and therefore of the melting polar ice that threatens many of the species pictured in the ad. GM SUVs, specifically, are a big part of the problem. Are GM executives trying to teach us about "inhabitants of the polar regions" because they realize those inhabitants may disappear due to climate change? Are they saying their vehicles can survive anywhere, even on melting ice caps, and therefore global warming is not a problem? Or are they just counting on the public to miss the connection between the SUV on the ice, and its role in causing that ice to melt? It's hard to say.

It is not hard, however, to see the connection of American cars to global warming. The U.S. accounts for 25% of global carbon emissions, the largest greenhouse gas and most important cause of climate change. Of that 25%, about one third is caused by the transportation sector. Cars and light trucks make up 62% of those transportation related emissions. So cars and light trucks make up about 20% of all U.S. carbon emissions, or about 5% of the world's total.

U.S. cars and light trucks alone emit more carbon than all sources from the entire nation of India, a country which auto executives are quick to point to in the debate over whether to limit emissions. GM vehicles alone account for about 1.65% of world carbon emissions - a substantial amount for a single company.

It would be bad enough for the climate if GM simply made the most cars in the world (which it does). But, like the other major automakers, it has increased its output of SUVs in the 14 years since global warming was recognized as a serious environmental threat. As a result, the fuel efficiency of GM vehicles went down during the 1990's, and the company's burden on the climate increased. The Saturn VUE's fuel efficiency is not as bad as some SUVs (22 city, 28 highway), but GM's record as a whole gives it one of the biggest impacts on the climate of any company in the world.

That impact is especially pronounced in the polar regions. As the US EPA notes, "Climate models indicate that global warming will be felt most acutely at high latitudes, especially in the Arctic where reductions in sea ice and snow cover are expected to lead to the greatest relative temperature increases."

The EPA goes on to report that these changes are already underway. Arctic temperatures are the warmest in 400 years. Snow cover has decreased 10% since the late 1960s. Alaska has warmed by an average of 4 degrees Fahrenheit since the 1950s, leading some glaciers to recede and thin.

These changes seem to be linked to declining health of polar bears, as earlier spring ice break-up leaves less time for them to hunt seals. Increased precipitation and deeper snow pack due to climate change is also a likely culprit in the decline of caribou in Alaska. Some Alaskan native communities are dependent on these caribou herds for their survival and their way of life. In the Antarctic, researchers have linked global warming and related snow and ice patterns to a decline of penguin populations. That is just the tip of the iceberg, so to speak, in terms of the mountain of evidence linking global warming and the decline of the wildlife depicted in the Saturn VUE ad.

If the caribou only knew, they would shun the VUE.

At home in any environment? In a twisted way, there is truth to the ad. While you won't find many SUVs from GM or any other company on ice floes in the far north, through their carbon emissions, they are symbolically present everywhere on earth. Even -- especially -- in the environmentally sensitive polar regions.

Saturn and its parent company GM are indeed connected to the ice packs and wildlife of the far north, but it's not a connection they should be proud of.

Main Sources

Global Warming - Impacts, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency fact sheet, http://yosemite.epa.gov/oar/globalwarming.nsf/content/ImpactsPolarRegions.html

John DeCicco & Feng An, "Automakers Corporate Carbon Burdens - Reframing Public Policy on Automobiles, Oil and Climate," Environmental Defense, 2002
Saturn Website www.saturn.com

Kenny Bruno is the CorpWatch Greenwash Guru.

AMP Section Name:Transportation
  • 100 Climate Justice Initiative
  • 102 Greenwash Awards
  • 183 Environment