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Consumer Reports: Car buyers want better fuel economy and safety, while auto ads steer people toward performance

Study counters automakers’ arguments for weakening fuel economy standards

Friday, October 19, 2018

WASHINGTON, D.C. — New research released by Consumer Reports, shows automobile advertising heavily emphasizes emotion and performance over fuel economy and safety, despite the fact that consumers consider fuel economy and safety to be among the most important factors in buying a vehicle.

This gap is significant because automakers have lobbied the federal government to roll back emissions and fuel economy standards. As part of that effort, automakers claimed that a lack of consumer interest in high-mileage vehicles presents a serious challenge to meeting these standards.

Consumer Reports says that its previous findings demonstrate that people want and are willing to pay for better fuel economy and safety, while these latest findings show that automaker ads are steering people in a different direction.

You can read today’s Consumer Reports story about the study here.

Key research findings:

  • Fuel economy and safety are the primary attributes that consumers want to see improved in their next vehicle, according to a recent CR survey
  • The new analysis of auto advertising on TV, in print, and online finds that performance appears three times more often than fuel economy and safety, while emotional appeals are ubiquitous.
  • Nearly one-third (30%) of vehicle owners report they did not get any information about their current vehicle’s mileage before buying or leasing it.  The window sticker was the only source of mileage information for nearly a quarter (23%) of all current vehicle owners. Only 15% of auto buyers reported learning fuel economy information from advertising.
  • Auto buyers who see fuel economy information when selecting their preferred vehicle choose more efficient vehicles in a realistic choice experiment.
  • Fuel economy choices are limited in the market, with 2/3rds of car models getting within 5 mpg of the model average and nearly 2/3rds (63%) of truck models getting within 3 mpg of the model average.

David Friedman, Vice President, Advocacy, for Consumer Reports, says, “Consumers clearly want cars and trucks with better mileage, but automakers aren’t offering them much choice, especially in larger vehicle classes, and are steering people toward performance instead. These findings are the latest example of how the industry’s arguments for rolling back the standards just do not hold up to scrutiny.”

Shannon Baker-Branstetter, Senior Policy Counsel for Consumer Reports, says, “Fuel economy standards are saving people money and driving innovation in the auto market.  There’s a considerable gap between consumer preferences and automakers’ marketing of fuel economy and vehicle offerings. Automakers may be making more money that way, but weaker standards mean more pain for consumers at the pump. Fuel economy standards meet the needs and interests of consumers, and they are critical to address the gap between consumer and automaker interests.”

In August, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) formally announced a plan to roll back the standards for emissions and fuel economy for new cars and light-duty trucks, following heavy pressure by automakers.

Consumer Reports helped shape and advance the current standards, and it strongly opposes the government’s latest plan. A CU analysis of the standards says, if the standards are allowed to meet their planned levels by model year 2025, new vehicle buyers would save about $3,200 per car and $4,800 per truck or SUV over the life of that vehicle, even after accounting for the cost of adding the fuel saving technologies.

The fact sheet for today’s research is here, and the full, long-form auto ad study is here.


Contact: David Butler, dbutler@consumer.org

Consumer Reports is an independent, nonprofit organization that works side by side with consumers to create a fairer, safer, and healthier world. For 80 years, CR has provided evidence-based product testing and ratings, rigorous research, hard-hitting investigative journalism, public education, and steadfast policy action on behalf of consumers’ interests. Unconstrained by advertising or other commercial influences, CR has exposed landmark public health and safety issues and strives to be a catalyst for pro-consumer changes in the marketplace. From championing responsible auto safety standards, to winning food and water protections, to enhancing healthcare quality, to fighting back against predatory lenders in the financial markets, Consumer Reports has always been on the front lines, raising the voices of consumers.