Every year, dozens of children die horribly in so-called "hot car deaths." Most of these occur when a parent forgets a child is in the backseat and leaves him or her locked up in heat that rises to deadly levels. Many, though -- a third of them last year -- occur when a young child, like two-year-old Hunter Iles of Alabama, climbs into a parked car to play and cannot get out. When Hunter's mother found him after a frenzied search, it was far too late. His death reminds us of the danger in equating cars with toys, something advertising encourages both the adult and, increasingly, the child to do.
Although hot car fatality numbers are small, they are on an uptick. Jan Null of San Francisco State University tracks deaths of children in vehicles as a result of hyperthermia, something that can happen swiftly even when outside air temperatures are mild. In a recent update brought to national attention by the AP's Ken Thomas, he noted 18 so far this year, a rate higher than last year's.
There are a lot of reasons why kids might see cars as playthings and decide to play with and in them; after all, we adults commonly refer to them as toys and to driving as fun. Much automotive advertising directed at adults suggests that cars can help us recapture a childlike sense of play: think about Mazda's longstanding "zoom zoom" campaign.
The automakers have a conscious strategy of advertising directly and indirectly to children; in particular, they increasingly feature kids in their ads. "Scavenger Hunt," a current commercial for the Chevy Equinox, turns the SUV into a literal playground. Seemingly unattended by an adult, children scramble in and out of the Equinox following clues "Dad" has hidden there, enticing them to look under the seat for candy and in the glove compartment for a toy. A commercial that Chrysler ran earlier this year for its Town and Country contrasted the lackluster outdoor play of kids in the park with the joy experienced by kids inside the minivan watching TV. The voiceover states: "It's a playground on four wheels."
Of course, auto marketing to kids should more broadly offend us because many more children are killed annually in or by cars -- 8,153 under 21 died in crashes in one recent year -- a topic we'll return to in future posts. But hot car deaths inspire in us a particular horror. One reason is the extensive reporting of these events, which often includes the gruesome details that are left out of most crash reports. They also seem much more senseless, somehow, than deaths in crashes -- although we might wonder why, since so many of the trips we take with our kids in the car are less than urgent ones.
They should inspire in us a particular response: if it could mean just one fewer set of grieving parents, we should demand that the automakers stop advertising their vehicles as giant toys.
Catherine Lutz, an anthropologist at the Watson Institute at Brown University, and Anne Lutz Fernandez, a former marketer and banker, are the authors of Carjacked: The Culture of the Automobile and its Effect on our Lives (Palgrave Macmillan).
Co-authored by Anne Lutz Fernandez