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Volvo advert, my explanation why it sucks

April 4, 2015

Volvo thinks they’ve done great stuff because they’ve either invented or promoted a reflective spray to make cyclists and other stuff visible at night:

I figured out what hacks me off about this — it’s as if Altria (formerly, R. J. Reynolds) ran commercials that proclaimed how they had done such great work on lung cancer research, and had developed an inhaled spray that you could use before smoking that would cut the early death rate from smoking (by some unspecified amount because they didn’t really do a study — just like here, nobody did a study).

Look at how great they are, cutting lung cancer deaths, right? It would be churlish and unkind to point out that their own product caused the bulk of those deaths, right?

And that doesn’t mean that smokers would not consider using this product if it actually worked, that doesn’t mean that they might not consider other safety measures (just as people like me who use lights and reflective tape nonetheless don’t much like this campaign by Volvo). The problem is that the company contributing to the problem in a large way is trying to claim major credit for doing something to make that problem only a tiny bit better, in a way that displaces responsibility onto the victims (“what, you didn’t use our protective spray before smoking? You have only yourself to blame for that lung cancer, then.”)

Is this a reasonable analogy? Are cars in the same death ballpark as smoking? They’re not quite as risky on a per-user basis — the relative annual mortality risk from smoking is between 1.8x and 2.1x (“Smoking and Mortality: The Kaiser Permanente Experience”) while the relative risk from driving to work (versus commuting by bicycle) is between 1.27x and 1.5x (“OECD: Cycling, Health and Safety”, p. 42). But only 18% of the population smokes, while 86% of the population drives to work. Smaller risk per person, but almost 5x as many people exposed.

One big reason that people drive when they could walk, or bike, or some combination of biking, walking, and transit, is that other people drive (badly). Volvo doesn’t want you to think that your driving is a threat to other people’s safety, or that it might scare them into also driving — but what is that reflective spray for? What’s it supposed to protect people on bicycles from? Surely not Volvo drivers. And surely, Volvo would not create a video designed to give the impression that people on bikes are somehow careless, or did not properly understand risks of the road, thus they just need some help (from Volvo, naturally) to make themselves safer.

Note that people on bicycle spot other people ahead of them by the tiniest little reflective bits; they don’t need this absurd spray. A walked dog has eyeballs; they reflect light, and the dog will hear you coming and look at you from an absurd distance. Most athletic shoes have small bits of reflective trim; for a 3 watt headlight, that is enough. Pedal reflectors work great. Backpacks and windbreakers often have bits of reflective trim. Sometimes, people will be walking with their cell phone open or on, either because they want a little light, or because they are using it; that works too. That’s all you need, for someone who actually cares to look, who knows that inventing an excuse for why you hit someone in the dark will not undo the fact that you (on the bike) got the worse end of the crash.

2 Responses to “Volvo advert, my explanation why it sucks”


  1. What’s worse, you might get lung cancer by inhaling the fumes of this stuff.

  2. Jonathan Says:

    My difficulty is on a stretch of bridge where I am regularly blinded by oncoming motor vehicle headlights. It’s hard to see pedestrians in the murk; I usually spot them feet first.


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