Cover image: Screen shot of 2022 Nissan Frontier advertisement
Quick cuts of rocks tumbling, water splashing, and dirt flying meld together as actress Brie Larson navigates a 2022 Nissan Frontier pickup over rough, off-pavement terrain. A fast, aggressive electric guitar riff screams in the background as the truck enters a brown-hued stream, waves rippling beneath the tires and chassis, windshield wipers on high as water moves over the hood. The shot goes wide, revealing a river surrounded by evergreen trees and a bright blue sky. The Nissan trundles upriver, the 3.8-liter V6 engine growling as waves roll over the truck tires. “The hero prevails,” Larson says, glancing at the camera confidently. Rock music and blood pressure rage. Man (or, in this case, woman) and machine continue to dominate the natural world. Driving this truck is exciting, cool—a thrill.
“There’s not a hunter or angler in America who would drive their SUV up a creek,” Trout Unlimited CEO Chris Wood tells me during a phone call. We’re discussing the river scene in Nissan’s 2022 Frontier ad. “I bet 75 percent of my members own SUVs, including me, and we wouldn’t think about doing that. I think [Nissan] is just getting bad advice.” This isn’t the first time a vehicle manufacturer has exhibited questionable stewardship practices in promotional material. Wood points to campaigns by Ford, Chevy, and Land Rover. “It started with Jeep in 2018,” he says. Chris was watching the Super Bowl game when an advertisement showed a 2019 Cherokee motoring up what appeared to be a waterway. “My then eight-year-old son said, ‘Dad, isn’t that really bad for the stream?’”
Wood has been the CEO of the non-profit organization Trout Unlimited for the past 12 years. Their mission is to conserve freshwater streams, rivers, and habitats of various aquatic species, he explains, by forging relationships between landowners, agencies, non-profits, municipalities, and other stakeholders. In response to the 2018 Jeep ad (titled “The Road”), Wood wrote a letter to Chairman and CEO Sergio Marchionne voicing his concerns. Several days later, Wood received a call from the head of communications for Fiat-Chrysler explaining that the “creek” was a flooded county road and that Jeep would clarify this in the online version of the ad. True to form, the unlisted YouTube video now contains a disclaimer stating that the brand cooperates with “federal/state/local governments and organizations, including Tread Lightly and Access Fund.”
With the general public heading out in droves to enjoy the great outdoors, what responsibility do vehicle manufacturers have when it comes to promoting responsible recreation? Do checks and balances exist in the production process? How do advertisements that disregard (or appear to disregard) Tread Lightly principles see the light of day?
Searching for answers, I approached Nissan, inquiring specifically about the 2022 Frontier ad. They sent this response:
Nissan selects filming locations for advertisements that are suited to the vehicle and that vehicle’s likely customers. These locations include public and private settings representing varied scenes, from cities to woodlands. Nissan works with agency partners to help protect all surroundings, making certain that we follow local, state, and federal guidelines for the activities. Nissan additionally seeks advice from trusted advisers on certain projects, such as Tread Lightly, to help inform activities when filming. This process isn’t new; however, we always take opportunities to get better at what we do to help protect areas where our advertisements are produced.
I pushed back a bit, asking for more specifics, but Nissan was clear that they had no further comment. So, I contacted Matt Caldwell, the Executive Director at Tread Lightly. Perhaps he could shed some light on the subject.
“You know, [considering] what we’ve experienced in the last two years, I think you have people that are new to the recreation space, particularly motorized recreation,” he says. “A lot of it is just lack of knowledge.” Wood agrees. “Maybe [those overseeing production] are from urban areas, and they don’t hunt or fish or get into outdoor recreation. They’re trying to appeal to this macho domination over nature concept, running your Jeep, Nissan, or Ford up a creek. It doesn’t get more manly than that.”
Vehicle manufacturers could be simply subscribing to a time-tested marketing formula. In You Belong Outside: Advertising, Nature, and the SUV, Simon Fraser University Communications Associate Professor Shane Gunster proposes that since the 1920s, vehicle advertising has “invoked the fantasy of leaving behind the constraints of a crowded, mundane, and polluted urban environment for the wide-open spaces offered by nature.” Henry Ford knew this well. “We shall solve the city problem by leaving the city,” he once said. Gunster argues that SUV marketing takes these themes even further, placing vehicles atop mountain peaks, amid dense forests, racing across vast deserts, or, you guessed it, driving upstream.
It will come as no surprise that as consumers (and overlanders), we think of vehicles as more than a means of transport, but as an extension of our identity. Our emotions dictate how we feel about transportation, equating what we drive with feelings of sensation, superiority, power, social status, and self-esteem.One of the most effective means of generating emotional connections in response to advertisements, Gunster writes, is to trigger those feelings by casting nature as the enemy. “More common . . . is the celebration of the SUV’s virtues via its engagement with a wilderness that appears frightening and dangerous, an uncompromising and hostile place that can only be mastered by sufficiently aggressive technology,” he writes.A 2010 Chevrolet print ad suggests, “Don’t let nature make you feel insignificant,” while if you purchased the 2012 Wrangler Sahara, Jeep promises it will “take on anything nature throws your way.”
With the growth of the global electric vehicle market, ad campaigns could be taking on a new twist. Some of the most popular 2022 Super Bowl ads invoked a sense of nostalgia. Austin Powers’ Dr. Evil takes over General Motors to announce their complete EV lineup; Chevy brought back The Sopranos’ Jamie-Lynn Sigler to drive the 2024 Silverado EV. Others incorporated typical EV imagery involving futurism and jolts of electricity and lightning to influence potential buyers. Perhaps the tone is changing, and automakers are focusing on new themes for the next phase of SUV culture in North America.
But Land Rover’s Above and Beyond Land campaign, posted on YouTube in January 2022, may indicate otherwise. This time it’s a Land Rover Defender cruising up a river that cuts through a deep gorge surrounded by cliffs. The following clip shows the Defender beneath a roaring waterfall, like a gorgeous woman bathing in the wild, water spilling from its hood in slow motion, a nearby sign reading “car wash.” A disclaimer in the video notes, “Off-road sequences filmed on private land with full permissions. All necessary reinstatement carried out. Always check route and exit before wading.”
Out of 487 comments in response to this video, one mentioned the waterfall scene. “In our country, it’s forbidden to drive through [a] river [or] waterfall. We should focus more . . . on what is normally used off-road.” Land Rover responded that, rest assured, they had full permission to do so and cleaned the Defenders “to ensure there was no contamination.”
Whether we admit it or not, we are influenced by advertising—so much so that certain European countries, Canada, Singapore, South Africa, and Australia, now regulate motor vehicle ads promoting dangerous driving. In a 2020 Australian research study, several car ads depicting fast driving and acceleration were tested on subjects aged 14 to 55; findings indicated that the ads promoted acceptance of dangerous driving behavior. With the newfound freedom of a driver’s license and a desperate desire to fit in, teenagers could be particularly susceptible to vehicle adverts (especially considering what we know about cigarette ads).
While the codes of advertising standards might seem irrelevant to private property, there is some overlap. In Alberta, for example, the Public Lands Act forbids “the disturbance of any public land in any manner that results or is likely to result in injury to the bed or shore of any river, stream, watercourse, lake, or other body of water.” The Canadian Code of Advertising Standards found that a 2019 Kia Sorento commercial—despite being filmed on a private ranch in the United States—encouraged or exhibited “obvious indifference to unlawful behavior,” with no indication that the scene had transitioned from public to private land when the water scene was shown. The commercial was removed from Kia Canada’s YouTube and social media channels.
In the United States, some original equipment manufacturers have ensured their advertising content adheres to municipal, state, and national stewardship guidelines, but that it also sets an example. Rivian is one of those companies. Global Head of Brand Forest Young says that the company’s reason for being is to uphold the preservation of the natural world for future generations. “What that means is that in addition to showing people how our vehicles enable outdoor adventure, we also need to model how to be stewards of these places we love when behind the wheel.”
Young says the subject of stewardship came up through collaboration between Rivian’s Creative Studio and Special Projects teams, who frequently work together on photo and video productions. “One of the first steps we took was to certify Rivian team members as Master Tread Trainers,” says Senior Manager of Special Projects Matt Gaskins. The company’s asset creation process involves pre-production scouting and preparation, practicing Tread Lightly principles on location, and conducting a post-production review to ensure the assets demonstrate responsible recreation. “We want to take every opportunity to lead by example, which starts with the visuals we feature on our channels since it’s likely to be interpreted that what we permit, we promote,” adds Young.
On April 11, 2022, Nissan and Tread Lightly announced a collaboration to “promote responsible off-road recreation through marketing, stewardship, and education programs.” Nissan agreed to consult with Tread Lightly to ensure off-pavement activities are presented properly in promotional activities. “Our goal and their goal,” says Caldwell, “is that this is a long-term agreement where we provide feedback on content that has been shot. We have also offered to be on shoots with their agency.” Part of this collaboration sees Nissan supporting stewardship projects near its US manufacturing facilities in Mississippi and Tennessee, helping the US Forest Service remediate damaged forest roads due to excessive flooding in the area.
“I think there is a definite passion to do the right thing,” Caldwell says. “You know, the thing we’ve tried to talk with the OE[M]s about is, we get you need to sell units. We all understand that. But there’s a balance between showing people having fun and continuing to have fun.”
I’m back chatting with Chris Wood from Trout Unlimited, asking whether he feels there are situations where driving through water isn’t harmful. The stuff on the underside of your car, like fluids and road salts, probably aren’t things you want washing down a river. But, driving across won’t harm the fish population in certain instances. “I have an old farm in West Virginia, and there’s a ford that crosses the river. When the water is low, you can drive across the creek.”
The thing about environmental stewardship is, like anything, it requires awareness and education. We don’t feel or see the effects of trail damage unless we travel those tracks regularly. Nor do we notice the fish population dwindling unless it’s our regular practice to wade into the depths of a stream and enjoy a day of fly fishing. My Canadian roots taught me nothing about the delicate and ancient cryptobiotic soil crusts of the American Southwest, and odds are that I could have, while hiking, unknowingly destroyed a colony of these organisms, which would then undertake the massive task of spending 5,000 years recolonizing. At one point or another, every one of us has likely committed a crime against the environment. “I didn’t know,” we shrug, guiltily vowing to do better. But from multinational corporations, shouldn’t we expect more?
“When fish lay eggs, they lay them on a redd. It’s a nest.” Wood is filling me in on the reproductive cycle of your average river fish. “The female fish will often use her tail to fan out some gravel and silt and drop her eggs there. Then the male fish will come over, not [necessarily] often, and fertilize the eggs.” Depending on the season, he explains, automobiles driving upriver could destroy fish nests, resulting in direct mortality.
I ask him if Nissan ever responded to a letter he wrote, calling them out on their Frontier ad. “They did write back and edited the spot to remove those portions. They said, we’re sorry about the ad, and here’s $10,000 we’d like to contribute toward your restoration work. The response was tremendous.”
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