A Hollywood celebrity-backed television ad campaign that claims SUV owners are aiding terrorists has prompted the question, “What do the stars drive?”
Syndicated columnist Arianna Huffington has the support of entertainment producers Norman Lear, Steve Bing and Larry David for her “Detroit Project,” which asks American consumers “to connect the dots and think about the effect that their gas-guzzling SUVs are having on our foreign policy.”
Huffington says she turned in her 13-mile-per-gallon Lincoln Navigator SUV for a hybrid gas and electric Toyota Prius that gets 52 miles per gallon, but she still makes her home in a 9,000-square-foot estate in the elite Brentwood neighborhood of Los Angeles.
She admitted to radio talk show host Sean Hannity on Tuesday she travels in private jets, though she told another WABC radio host in New York yesterday, Curtis Sliwa, she does it at the “sacrifice” of frequent flier miles.
As of last year, Bing was known to drive a luxury Lincoln Town Car, according to media sources.
‘He has an incredible lineup’
Meanwhile, Lear’s neighbors in the Brentwood Hills area of Los Angeles are well aware of the famous TV producer’s 21-car garage, which became the object of a legal battle in the 1990s when Lear wanted to build a tennis court on its roof.
A neighbor who spoke with WND on condition of anonymity said he does not know Lear’s mode of travel, but notes that consumption of oil-based products at the celebrity’s gated, 13,000-square-foot estate is conspicuous.
“If you come across any estate here in Brentwood, you will see 10 to 40 trash cans outside made of plastic and also filled with plastic items, while a normal household puts out one trash can a week,” he said.
Lear’s inventory of plastic garbage containers is no exception.
“He has an incredible lineup,” the neighbor said. “My thought as I drive by is always, ‘How does his staff move the cans a quarter of a mile out to the street?'”
In addition to his Los Angeles residence, Lear owns a “multi-building estate on a hillside in southern Vermont” that includes “offices, a gym, a screening room, as well as spacious living quarters,” said a July 30, 2002 story by the Associated Press.
Lear’s Brentwood neighbor, whose 3,000 square-foot home is modest by comparison, said the anti-SUV campaign makes a valid argument for conservation but smacks of hypocrisy.
“For people of their income category, it’s the pot calling the kettle black in terms of consumption,” he said.
‘I helped hijack an airplane’
The ads, patterned after anti-drug commercials that suggest profits from illegal sales go to terrorists, say that terrorists end up with some of the extra money needed to supply gas for fuel-hungry SUVs.
One ad begins with a girl’s voice referring to a man at a gas station: “This is George. This is the gas that George bought for his SUV.”
A map of the Middle East then appears, followed by: “These are the countries where the executives bought the oil that made the gas that George bought for his SUV.” The scene then moves to terrorists in a desert: “And these are the terrorists who get money from those countries every time George fills up his SUV.”
Another ad includes a series of statements from ordinary Americans: “I helped hijack an airplane”; “I gave money to a terrorist training camp in a foreign country”; “What if I need to go off-road?” It concludes with: “What is your SUV doing to our national security?”
Television stations in New York, Detroit and Los Angeles are refusing to air the ads. WABC in New York said it has a policy against running “controversial” commercials. Sunday news shows, including “Meet the Press,” “Face the Nation” and “This Week With George Stephanopoulos” are expected to air the spots this weekend.
Ted Pearse, general sales manager of WDIV-TV in Detroit, said he thought the “copy in the ads is totally inappropriate, and that has nothing to do with the fact the auto show is in town,” according to the Detroit Free Press. “If it was eight weeks from now, I don’t feel the script presented to us was germane in any shape, way or form,” he said.
SUV limos for the stars
Lear is founder of the lobby group People for the American Way, launched to oppose the “conservative agenda,” and co-founder of the Environmental Media Association, which has helped spawn an increase in movies and TV shows with environmental themes.
Among board members of the environmental group are Disney CEO Michael Eisner, actress Jane Fonda and actor John Travolta, who pilots his own luxury Boeing 707.
Eisner and Fonda also are clients of a company in Los Angeles that converts SUVs and other heavy-duty “low-profile” vehicles, such as Chevy Suburbans and Ford Excursions, into “original-length, non-stretch, executive limousines.”
The cars provide “spacious and elegant interiors, equipped with an array of personal comforts and top-of-the-line electronics.”
Howard Becker of Becker Automotive Design, Inc., told WND that, to no one’s surprise, Hollywood celebrities, including some leading environmental activists, are inclined toward vehicles with “more powerful engines.”
Becker said he could not discuss his many celebrity clients, but his website includes a list of customers.
Celebrities who have ordered custom-built SUV or truck-based limousines along with Fonda and Eisner are Barbra Streisand, Whoopi Goldberg, Elizabeth Taylor, Jerry Seinfeld, Charlie Sheen, Will Smith, Denzel Washington, Cher, Sylvester Stallone, Ben Affleck, Adam Sandler, Michael Jackson, Michael Douglas and Eddie Murphy.
“A lot of what we do here is meant to be subtle on the outside so [the celebrities] don’t draw attention,” Becker said. “Inside, many of the vehicles have all the luxuries and amenities that are part of their current state in life.”
Streisand’s publicist was unavailable for comment, but the actress and political activist has been known, at least in the past, to travel about town in a 45-foot, fully equipped motor home that gets about six to eight miles per gallon. She has told people close to her that the massive vehicle is necessary, even for short trips, in order to avoid germs at public restrooms.
Goldberg and Affleck are among the “legions of Hollywood celebrities” who have “hopped into the truck du jour,” the Cadillac Escalade, the Los Angeles Times said Nov. 24, helping “rekindle interest in a luxury brand that has lost its luster in recent years.”
However, “Seinfeld” co-creator Larry David, like Huffington, drives a hybrid Prius that entertainment tabloids call “Hollywood’s latest politically correct status symbol.” The car has a suggested base price of $20,000.
Many Hollywood notables look at the Prius like they looked at a Jaguar a few years ago, according to a June 6, 2002, story in the Washington Post, which notes David sold his Lexus and producer Rob Reiner traded in his BMW to get one.
Cameron Diaz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Carole King, Billy Joel, David Duchovny and Bill Maher are other celebrities who have hopped on board the Prius.
David likes the car so much he bought three, including one for his character “Larry David” on his HBO series “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”
DiCaprio told the Post, “This is the most radical mass-produced car in the world and I can’t find any downside.”
“My family and I own a total of four,” DiCaprio said, “and we drive them all over Los Angeles.”
Reiner said he bought one because he found out from David “that they existed.”
“I thought, ‘Here’s something I could actually do that would save on gas, save the environment, protect us from global warming,'” Reiner said.
Prius-owner Huffington, who sold her Lexus as well as her SUV, also was quoted in the Post story.
“It is very much a little peer pressure,” she said of the celebrity interest in the hybrid car. “Positive peer pressure.”
“I got a little tired of hearing how we’re at war, and we’re being asked to do nothing about it but go shopping, go to Disneyland and the mall,” she said.
The columnist also pointed out its social benefit as a conversation piece.
On the day she purchased the car, she drove to lunch and quickly drew a dozen gawkers in front of the restaurant.
“The parking lot was full of Jaguars and Bentleys,” she said, “and my host … brought everyone out to the driveway to look at Arianna’s car. It became this point of attraction.”
SUVs accounted for one in four vehicles sold last year, according to the industry research firm Autodata Corp.
Toyota Motor Corp. announced this week it will introduce a hybrid version of the Lexus RX330 sport-utility vehicle in 2004. The company promises it will have the performance of a V-8 engine and the economy of a compact sedan.
Goal not to ‘demonize’
The goal of the “Detroit Project” is “not to demonize people who drive SUVs,” said co-founder Lawrence Bender, a movie producer whose credits include “Pulp Fiction” and “Good Will Hunting.”
“Rather,” Bender said in a statement, “we want to point out how our driving habits at home are fueling oil money to Saudi Arabia – which funnels some of that wealth to support charities and religious zealots with ties to terrorist activity – and to Iraq, where Saddam Hussein invests the profits in weapons of mass destruction.”
Last year, a group of evangelical Christian activists caused a stir with their anti-SUV television spot called “What would Jesus drive?”
Huffington said, “We’re asking American consumers to connect the dots and think about the effect that their gas-guzzling SUVs are having on our foreign policy.”
‘A bit of a reach’
Campaign media organizer Simon Aronoff said the idea came from a column Huffington wrote urging Americans to get rid of their SUVs as an act of patriotism.
“The only reason she moved forward is she got thousands of letters of support and checks started coming in,” he told WND. “These were average people sending in small donations. So she said, ‘let’s build on this and do something.'”
In an Oct. 22, 2002, column Huffington referred to “the Bush team’s ridiculous and wildly inflammatory anti-drug ads” and wondered “if we might turn the tables on him by starting a little ad campaign of our own to sabotage another misguided Bush campaign: the War on Conservation.”
In another column, Nov. 25, 2002, Huffington opined, “How nice it must feel for SUV owners, knowing that their swaggering imprudence is helping the world’s anti-democratic oil sheiks sleep just a little better at night. Call this camp the Bigger Is Better crowd. Their motto: ‘Burn, baby, burn … 30 percent more carbon monoxide and hydrocarbons and 75 percent more nitrogen oxides than passenger cars.’ How about this for a bumper sticker: ‘Honk if you hate the ozone layer!'”
Custom auto-builder Becker thinks Huffington’s claim that SUV drivers contribute to terrorism is “a bit of a reach” and needs proof.
“My wife has driven my kids to their soccer games in SUVs, and I don’t think any of us think we are contributing to terrorism,” he said.
The free market indicates others don’t either, Becker maintains.
“If utility and use and joy in life is served well by a vehicle that uses a little more gas than another uses, the American public is saying that they prefer this, and the risk isn’t great enough,” he said.