“Watch your back.”
Janet has taken the lead, deep in a shopping-mall parking complex, hot on the trail of the beast. Glancing around for the security detail while passing a couple of under-sized rejects, she spots her target: a towering, sparkling-silver, late-model Chevrolet Tahoe. It only takes a moment, and she has bagged her metallic prey.
This pretty, 25-year-old beach-area resident is an SUV tagger, and her weapon of choice is a batch of bumper stickers she carries with her most everywhere she travels. This particular SUV would probably be carrying around her message for the rest of the day, or until the owner notices the sticker on the rear bumper that reads, “MY SUV FUNDS TERRORISM. ASK ME WHY!”
Janet is among hundreds nationwide who have taken the debate over gas-guzzling, automotive behemoths to the streets and parking lots of America. While what they do is technically considered vandalism, their intent is not to do damage, but to inform owners of their impact not only environmentally but also economically.
“There is this backlash that's coming out now,” explains Janet, who requested that her last name not be used, “that the SUV will hopefully some day come to be viewed as some kind of unpatriotic relic of the '90s. I don't think it's unreasonable to believe that the hybrid and fuel-efficient vehicles will emerge as the cars of choice for a more-worldly America. Hopefully.”
But this is America, right? Land of the free, home of the mega-beast on wheels?
“Right, it is America,” Janet responds, acknowledging this country's obsession with all things bigger. “You have the freedom to buy what you want. I'm not saying that you shouldn't be allowed to buy them at all. I'm just saying that to abuse this freedom is what I think is irresponsible. It's a free country, but there aren't unlimited resources to go along with this freedom. Just use a little bit of common sense and moderation in your choices.”
She says she is most offended by the largest of the SUVs: the Expeditions, Escalades and Hummers-especially those that tool around with American flags flapping in the breeze. Those cars are the poster children of American excess in the eyes of many SUV taggers. “I mean, is that what patriotism means? I think the most decisive war we could wage on behalf of national security and against terrorism is basically our image of Earth,” Janet says. “We should be at war against our own oil gluttony. We should be an example.”
Jeff Bryson, a professor at San Diego State University who specializes in social psychology, isn't at all surprised by the efforts of these guerilla marketers. “We divide ourselves in terms of those who own SUVs and those who don't,” Bryson explains. “There is a discontent among those who feel that these are just too damn big. Are SUV drivers self-centered? Probably. But at the same time, virtually all of the bottom line for car manufacturers comes from SUVs right now. What does that say about our society?”
In his new book, High and Mighty SUVs: The World's Most Dangerous Vehicles and How They Got That Way, former New York Times Detroit bureau chief Keith Bradsher notes the auto industry's portrait of the SUV owner, developed through detailed marketing research.
“Who has been buying SUVs since automakers turned them into family vehicles?” Bradsher writes. “They tend to be people who are insecure and vain. They are frequently nervous about their marriages and uncomfortable about parenthood. They often lack confidence in their driving skills. Above all, they are apt to be self-centered and self-absorbed (Detroit marketeers prefer the term ‘self-oriented'), with little interest in their neighbors and communities.”
Bryson thinks this may be a bit extreme, but he agrees with the general sentiment. “It is definitely a problem,” he says. “I'm not sure about the insecurity, but the uncertainty about their driving skills makes sense. They're up above it and safe inside. And yes, probably self-centered. They have the right to the road-you know, ‘As a matter of fact I do own it.' And it has become the new status car. It's driving a van without having to admit you're driving a van.
“For a lot of people, their car says something about them, and they don't want to be van drivers. We all know the disadvantages of driving SUVs in terms of safety, but the car industry's done a damn good job of selling them. Even Porsche has come out with an SUV. I mean, where do we go from here?”
Drew Agras, a Boulder, Colo., resident whose personal website, idontcareaboutair.com, has become a kind of Internet temple to SUV taggers like Janet, says the guerilla tactics are an effective weapon against the corporate mindset that equates SUVs with power and status.
“It's consumer oriented,” Agras says, “because if you make a 1 or 2 percent dent in sales, that's when I think the auto industry is gonna listen.”
What really ticks off people like Agras are the television ads. “They're all about power, luxury and superiority, and there's been very little education out there until lately about the safety problems, gas problems, the terrorism connection and especially emissions. That's why the web address is on the bumper stickers, to get people driven to the site to read a little bit more about it and hopefully just get the talk out there.”
The website also includes a discussion forum, if discussion is what you could call it. One taggee recently wrote: “Taggers are cowards and morons.... Is it worth the money it would cost to defend yourself and possibly civil suits as well, to be such an ‘outstanding citizen' as to hide in the dark until an owner is not looking and then deface their vehicle?”
Yet another writes in to suggest fellow SUV drivers “fill her up” and drive more: “Maybe I should feel a little sadness for such a very small group of people who dream of a communist and/or socialist regime since there [sic] dream will never come true, not as long as I own my SUV and guns. Yes, I do feel sad about them since they are wasting valuable American real estate and breathe our air. I say give them a bike and ship them off to China that's where they would love to be but can't because they are so poor.”
Agras says such vitriol, which is quite common, is “really unfortunate, I think, because that brings out the ugliness in SUV drivers. There are a lot of physical threats against taggers in general. You can see it on the forum, where they want to rub your face in the asphalt.”
Bryson understands the violent overtones. “The SUV does represent this image of security for the family, and for you to attack that by questioning the purchase is going to get a very hostile reaction.”
Since Time magazine ran a blurb in December on the SUV-tagging movement, Agras says requests for bumper stickers have skyrocketed. “I've been sending out, geez, up to 500 a week,” he says. “And that's just me sending them out.... And I get requests from everywhere: Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego, New Jersey, New York, Hawaii, Alaska, a couple from Atlanta. I mean, it's absolutely everywhere.”
Beside his website, there are others cropping up as well. Arianna Huffington's The Detroit Project (www.detroitproject.com) has received significant press coverage lately for its television ads linking gas-guzzling drivers to terrorism as a riff on the government's efforts to link drug use to the likes of Osama Bin Laden. Many television stations have refused to run the ads, claiming they're too inflammatory.
But folks like Janet remain undaunted. She knows the risks are there, but after slapping more than 200 stickers on these metal beasts, she realizes “there's a purpose behind it. We're trying to get across the facts and alternatives.”
What does her mother think? “She's always telling me, ‘When you wind up in jail, you call your sister! I don't want you to call me.' Not that she disagrees. She just thinks that it's a little bit unsafe, and I agree. It is risky, and I'm sure I'll have a tire on my head if I do get caught.”