Feb 072013
Bikes Are Being USED, I Tell You. Keep Up the Good Work.

This print ad in a major glossy beauty magazine is an example of using bikes to sell an image, a lifestyle, and something other than bikes. I'm okay with that.

Have you been bikewashed, and did it feel good? More to the point, does it do some good?

I’ve been contemplating the bikewashing concept ever since Elly Blue highlighted it in a post last summer.

She defined bikewashing as “the two-wheeled equivalent of greenwashing — the practice of marketing some product or company by using environmentally friendly images despite that product or company’s near lack of actual environmental friendliness.”

This print ad in a major glossy beauty magazine is an example of using bikes to sell an image, a lifestyle, and something other than bikes. I’m okay with that. Plus, she’s rockin’ those red shoes and they’re biking in everyday clothes.

Velouria over at Lovely Bicycle also did a round-up of bike images on product labels that you might look at for another take on what bike images are meant to suggest to a potential purchaser.

I’m not digging into the environmental profile of every company I mention below so I’m not directly discussing bikewashing as Elly defines it—just the use of bicycle images in advertising to sell other things.

I’d say that the notion that bike images are being “used” is actually—surprisingly—an auto-centric view (sorry, Elly!).

How’s that again?

How many ads use an image of a car that has nothing to do with the actual product being sold? Plenty. Because we’re all, every last one of us—bike advocate or not—acculturated in a society where cars are so taken for granted we don’t even notice their images or think of them as part of the sales pitch.

Cars and trucks are portrayed in advertising as a part of everyday life because they are. They’re also used to convey freedom, power, patriotism, manhood, wealth, convenience, family time, getting away from it all, and scenic beauty on terrifyingly windy roads with majestic snow-capped mountains or crashing surf somewhere nearby–images which reflect the reality of driving in urban traffic about as much as those ads for beer that suggest that drinking beer will make you thin, beautiful, and good at beach volleyball played solely with other extremely attractive people.

We don’t notice cars the same way we don’t notice white people if we’re white; they’re assumed.

Ads feature a carefully balanced mix of genders, ethnicities, and ages (depending on the product being sold) because at some point, advertisers caught on that leaving people out signals that you don’t want their business. Gaining everyday placement in ads, while it might seem shallow, has paralleled societal gains for everyone who now shows up.

Once upon a time, the people with the money making the ads couldn’t see what wasn’t there.

The people being included in ads now are part of the societal norm that can’t safely be ignored. They’re mainstream. They’re a target demographic. I can tell you for sure that the TV world of my youth didn’t feature the equivalent of ads showing people who love a particular cell-phone service because it lets them call their parents back in India or Mexico, but those ads run all the time on Seattle cable right now. That tells us something about the place of immigrants in U.S. society.

I’d also venture a guess that ads lag behind what’s really happening in society because big business is fundamentally cautious, so whatever they’re showing is less than what’s really out there.

Thus I think of it as a really, really good thing if directors of ads for everything from canned green beans to online stock-trading sites to competing cell-phone services put bikes in the ads. Bikes should be fully as ubiquitous as cars in the images and metaphors used everywhere—in ads, movies, books, popular songs, videos on Vimeo and YouTube, Flickr and Pinterest collections, and photos on Facebook with big-type captions that we’re supposed to find irresistible and post on our own walls—if we are ever to establish bikes as firmly in the mainstream of transportation as cars are today.

I’m also particularly stoked to see the number of ads in which the bike is associated with a woman rather than a man, implying that both genders ride bikes in roughly equal numbers (which isn’t the reality yet in the United States). In fact, based on my unscientific TV ad sample women ride bikes more than men, if producers of ads are any measure.

I started compiling a list of ad examples using a methodology that, while not scientific, was certainly random. If:

1) an ad ran during a show I was watching (this means it’s in rotation on shows like Law & Order, NCIS, or Criminal Minds),

2) I spotted a bike in an ad when it wasn’t the focus of the product being sold, and

3) I thought about this post topic in that moment, then

4) I did a quick search to see if I could find a visual representation of the ad to share and saved a note. (In passing: Dear ad agencies and businesses they work for, if you paid a bunch of money to produce that ad why on earth didn’t you put it up on YouTube so I could find it? Did you know that’s free?)

Random bike appearances where the bike has nothing to do with the thing being sold:

  • Del Monte green bean ad: Happy people on bikes are the final few seconds
  • Honey Bunches of Oats: Woman in sunny yellow bike helmet delivers cereal to a woman at her front door; ad closes with a bike wheeling across the screen
  • Great Grains: In a series of close-ups of women standing in front of a field of golden grain, one shot shows the front wheel of a bike in the field behind the woman.
  • Quaker Oats: Young boy riding up snowy mountain on his mountain bike on an adventure, goes past what looks like perhaps a Tibetan in traditional garb walking up the steep trail, reaches the summit, does a fist pump—then we see that he’s really on top of a picnic table with the bike dropped beside it and the ad cuts to Quaker Oats (which gave him the energy to have awesome adventures).
  • (Side note: Clearly bikes and cereal have a strong, wholesome attraction to each other. And apparently viewers of crime shows eat a lot of cereal.)
  • TD Ameritrade: Woman dressed all in red riding an upright bike through various obviously fake scenes made using that 3-dimensional paper silhouette technique (bike looks like my Specialized Globe Daily 2)
  • Verizon: Young guy shown riding his bike around a city; at the end we discover he’s been drawing a heart on the street that he sends his girlfriend as a GPS map. (You do have to love that the guy on the bike really did this spontaneously first, then Verizon’s ad agency picked it up and reproduced the process)
  • Tracfone “Everywhereness” ad: Shots of people being “everywhere” include both a woman walking into a parking garage, a young girl seen from behind riding her bike on a dusty country road with a violin or viola strapped to her back, and a shot out a passenger window inside a car tunnel somewhere.
  • And one where the bike is a product for sale—Neiman Marcus + Target TV ad during the 2012 Christmas holiday shopping season: Quick shot of a fully set-up bike as one of the products (flowery upright city bike with front basket and chain guard; if you’re tempted read this review on Kent’s Bike Blog first)

Car appearances in ads that aren’t for cars themselves do include ones in which the car actually has something to do with the product, like the Edible Arrangements ad that shows their delivery van pulling up at the end of the spot.

Then there are ones like an ad for Delsym cough medicine. Cough medicine has nothing to do with cars, right? But people are shown walking and in a car with cough drops falling from above. (I’ll avoid suggesting that bicyclists are healthier and thus don’t get sick as often as drivers. Or—whoops!—I won’t avoid making that suggestion after all.)

A person is shown in a car in this ad because a car is one of the ways all these good-looking, tastefully accessorized people get around. So where’s the bikewashing when you need it?

Bottom line: The more bikes I see in ads the happier I get. I don’t care what else they’re selling—they’re normalizing bicycling.

Related Reading

Your Turn

  • How do you feel when you see a bicycle in an ad?
  • Does that feeling seem like a manipulation?
  • If so, do you mind?
  • Have any favorite ads like the ones described above in which a bike isn’t the point but rather a prop sending a positive message?
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Reader Comments

  1. Yes! Riding a bike is a perfectly normal thing to do, and I’m glad that’s being recognized in some places. I still encounter dozens of daily reminders that “normal” people always drive cars – for example, when I arrive for a routine physical and see great big signs everywhere showing where the car parking facilities are located, but I have to pedal around the block to find a place to park my bike. I’m even cheered when car companies use bike images to sell cars! It means they’re scared, as they should be.

  2. Barb, I agree with you on the ads. The more the merrier! The best part are the feelings and associations that the people on the bikes are used to evoke: happiness, no stress, freedom, childhood, healthy, challenge and triumph.

    To me it’s not about the company being green, it’s about the company’s products bringing you all these things. I can’t say that my breakfast cereal makes me feel all that, but my bike sure does.

  3. Shirley, the guy in the Verizon ad probably did heat up and sweat a bit. Given the resolution and distance you’d only notice it if he were dripping with sweat. And it’s completely normal to not be dripping with sweat on a cloudy day in San Francisco in the winter in jeans and a hoodie.

  4. FYI Dottie is a co-writer of “Let’s go ride a bike” while “Lovely Bicycle” is written by Velouria.
    Otherwise, a nice article.

  5. Based on that map and all those climbs shouldn’t he be at least a little sweaty? If someone did that in Seattle using the two bodies (Elliot Bay and Lake Washington) of water as reference points for the hearts it would make an incredibly sweaty ride.

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