I’ve been talking to friends and co-conspirators about how best to do bicycle
propaganda marketing. There’s a tendency in Boulder — as well as more broadly in the US — to market transportation cycling on the basis of its environmental, health, economic, and even political benefits. These benefits are significant, and are part of why I and many others who already ride, do so. However, I don’t think that means they’re the right way to reach the other 99% of the US population (or even to the other 90% of the Boulder population). To use this rational, functional framing is to use the marketing techniques of the 19th century, which often assumed consumers to be rational beings, making their purchases on the basis of the relative functional merits of the products on offer. Some people behave rationally, in some purchases, but since the mid 20th century most corporations (and many governments) have realized that this is not actually the best way to move product. Ever since Edward Bernays, marketing and public relations has largely been about evoking an emotional response and associating your product with the aspirations of the consumer, regardless of whether those aspirations are attainable or pure fantasy. Most people with an analytical background are irritated by the idea that logical rhetoric and rational argument are not the best ways to convince people of something. I’ve seen this issue come up repeatedly with public science communication, especially in the context of climate change.
Irritating or not, this seems to be the way most people work, most of the time. If we want cycling to become something everyone does, we have to work with people as they are, not as we wish they were. The benefits of the bicycle will be realized if lots of people decide to ride, regardless of whether they’ve made that decision rationally.
Automakers have of course already learned this lesson. When was the last time you saw a car marketed in a rational framework? In their ads you don’t see a representative sampling of what it’s like to use the vehicle. You never see a mom stuck in traffic with two screaming kids in the back seat. Instead you see a professional driver on a closed section of the Pacific Coast Highway, driving in a way that would normally get them arrested, or at least ticketed. You don’t see anyone driving in circles at 5 miles an hour looking for a curbside parking spot. You see them careening around the skyscrapers of a spotlessly clean but deserted city. You certainly never see anyone spending $120 to fill up the tank of their Urban Assault Vehicle or mentioning that it costs more than $7500 a year to own and operate a modest, relatively new vehicle in the US.
What automotive ads do show us is a dream about cars and car ownership. A fantasy world in which we are rich and powerful and sexy, where there’s never any traffic, and we’re somehow the only person for a hundred miles who owns a car. The dream they’re selling isn’t actually in stock. It’s been on back order for 50 years. And still there are plenty of people dedicating a quarter of their income to leased sportscars and BMWs that spend most of their time crawling along the 405 freeway in SoCal. The marketing works.
We can do the same kind of thing for bikes. We can show a dream about what bicycling could be, if it were normalized. Simple and liberating. Sociable and relaxing. The wind in your hair, holding the hand of your lover. Kissing at a stoplight. Pausing spontaneously to have a conversation with a friend on the sidewalk. A picnic and a nap in the shade by the creek. The difference is, unlike the automotive fantasy, the bicycle dream is attainable.
The target market for this dream is the people who aren’t on bikes. They do not think brightly colored lycra covered with ads is cool. They do not want the clippedyclop shoes and bug-eyed glasses. They don’t want to change their clothes and take a shower when they get to work. They don’t want to hear about the relative merits of carbon fiber and chromoly steel, cantilevers and disc brakes. They do not want to belong to a bicycling subculture — if they did, they’d probably be with us already. We just want them to get on their bikes and ride, with the least possible impact to their cultural identification and daily routine. We aren’t trying to recruit them to our side in the fight, we’re suggesting that there are no sides. There is no fight. Thankfully this is a much easier sell in Boulder than Los Angeles!
The CycleChic meme understands these things. Explicitly. The Cycle Chic blogs aren’t meant to be objective, or perfectly representative of their communities. It’s marketing. Advertising. Public Relations. Propaganda. Call it whatever you want, but it’s skewed on purpose, and that’s okay. It’s not trying to be science or journalism. It’s trying to provide a vision of cycling that people who are not already on bikes want to insert themselves into. The reasons that people will choose to cycle en masse will be different from the reasons that we’ve chosen to ride. That doesn’t mean our reasons are wrong, just that they don’t scale up.