Reporting on pedestrian life in the D.C. area

Zipcar ads inspire subtle bicyclist outrage around the world

October 14, 2011 - 08:30 AM
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The most controversial of the Zipcar ads, which feature prominently on and elsewhere, poke fun at the idea of a struggling bicyclist. 6 Photos
(Photo: Zipcar/Zipcar)

D.C., you're a Zipcar town, with roughly 60,000 Zipsters give or take, so you should take a special interest in this.

In fits and starts and in pockets around the country and world, Zipcar's latest ad campaign is causing a ripple of dissatisfaction in some people, in particular certain bicyclists. The ad campaign is called "Sometimes You Just Need a Car" and features multiple different images on Zipcar's national homepage and elsewhere of how different forms of transit can fail a commuter. The most talked-about image is the one above, which shows a cyclist in business clothes struggling along with an armful of belongings. Look through the gallery to see other ads from the campaign: the mopey band members stuck on a bus, the canoe-carrying men miserable in the subway, the shopper stranded with all her purchases at the bus shelter, and the man thrown out onto the sidewalk with nowhere to go and no apparent way to carry all his items. The campaign launched in early September on the homepage of the world's largest car-sharing company as well in banner ads, some subway displays in cities like Boston and throughout various Zipcar markets, including Washington, D.C.

Are these Zipcar ads simply clever and fun or cause for offense?

Bicyclists in particular have taken offense to that first image, and the reactions have begun to filter in during recent months, from Portland to Copenhagen.

"It comes as a bit of a surprise that Zipcar would go after bicycle culture in a campaign, but here they are, doing it," notes a blogger named Mikael in a Copenhagenize post from early yesterday. "It's interesting to note and track the rising resistance of the car industry and related auto-centric industries to the rise of the bicycle in our cities."

Mikael goes through each image and dissects what he sees as inaccurate ("Zipcar isn't just playing the anti-cycling card. They're slapping a whole bunch misconceptions out there"), such as the idea that people in business suits can't bike and carry many belongings with them. He provides his own photographic evidence to prove that yes, a pedestrian can move from one apartment to another using cargo bikes and that yes, there are many musicians who transport musical instruments on public transit.

The Bike Portland blog carried a similar message a month earlier, around the time the ads first launched, and said that the Zipcar ads "jab" bicycling. "Why make bikes look bad just to make a buck?" blogger Jonathan Maus asked Zipcar in the post. "I thought we were friends." His entry included bicyclists own mock-ups of the Zipcar ads as well as an illustration titled "Sometimes You Just Need a Bicycle," all from low-car enthusiasts and cyclists from Portland and Eugene, Oregon.

Bicyclists have demonstrated a particular sensitivity to how bikes are depicted in mainstream media. One Bike Portland commenter brings up a 2007 Microsoft ad in which bikes are subtly associated with dorkiness when compared to cars. Just this fall, General Motors featured an ad that, as Streets Blog D.C. phrased it, "is trying to convince college students that driving a Buick is hipper than riding a fixie." The head of the American League of Bicyclists called this GM ad " one of the more remarkably ill-conceived car ad campaigns of all time," and the public response caused GM to announce just recently that it's removing the advertisement. But is Zipcar guilty of this same off-putting sin against cyclists?

"Our culture here is extremely pro-bike," Zipcar national spokesperson Colleen McCormick told me over the phone. The ad was intended to be "tongue-and-cheek" on Zipcar's part, according to her. "Overall we had a very good response to [the campaign] ... It was meant to be humorous."

Zipcar is, after all, the company that adamantly promoted its own Low Car Diet challenge, with challengers from a dozen cities to see who could use their cars least. The company has long privileged the notion that avoiding the personal automobile and reducing its use is worthwhile. Zipcar and biking advocates are, in that sense, very much on the same team.

McCormick described biking as an avid part of the culture around the Zipcar headquarters. "We have a bike club here in the office," she said. They had to install an extra rack due to the interest in biking. Zipcar senior leadership and employees participate in the Pan-Mass Challenge bike-a-thon to raise money for cancer research and treatment at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and more than 30 participants, from CEO and chairman Scott Griffith to president and COO Mark Norman, raised nearly $225,000 this past year. In New York City, Zipcar "partnered with Yakima and Bike New York to provide bike racks on Ford Escape vehicles along with Empire Passport permits for complimentary access to New York State Parks." The biking criticism is the only one McCormick reported hearing about this campaign ("Thus far, we have not been accused of being 'anti-canoe' or 'anti-subway," she noted, referring to other ads in the "Sometimes You Just Need a Car" campaign). Are these criticisms reflective of a "handful" of cyclists, as McCormick suggests, or do they appropriately respond a broader way our society sees bicycling and is implicitly captured in that image?

I believe McCormick when she describes the intent of Zipcar, just as I see how some bicyclists reacted automatically to the idea that any person needs a car, to the idea that a bike doesn't deliver. Perhaps there's a bit of the Napoleon concept at work with the bike? The bike is the smallest and most vulnerable vehicle out there on the road. No surprise its riders feel that extra push to defend and advocate for a broader set of associated causes, with political undertones. Most ardent bicyclists don't like anything that resembles a threat or what they perceive as a misconception or insult, from what I've observed.

Yet I liked reading through Mikael's rebuttal and did see one especially valuable thought near the end of his post:

Do Zipcars come with detachable bike racks as standard? Nah. Didn't think so. Every taxi in Denmark must be equipped with two bike racks. If you need a taxi and have a bicycle to transport, the driver gets out and takes out the rack from the trunk, sticking it into the standard holder on the back of the taxi. Wouldn't THAT be a good idea for Zipcar and other car share programmes? ...

By the way, I've heard that Paris is getting a large-scale Zipcar-ish car share programme with electric cars. Don't Zipcars still run on oil? Sheesh. Isn't it 2011, or what?

As cities expand their biking infrastructure and programs (such as Capital Bikeshare moving into Alexandria), those concerns will become even more pressing. Zipcar has established a strong reputation for its environmental concerns and its outreach, especially in cities like D.C., and most Zipsters seem proud and happy to be part of that image and with their service. But as all these forms of transportation expand, the culture and sensitivities of different transportation methods will inevitably collide — this is a perfect case study. Was there some real cause for offense here?

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