The Lorax Speaks for the Trees (and Mazda's New Crossover SUVs)

Why on Dr. Seuss's truffula tree-covered earth is Mazda using a classic environmentalist tale to sell a sports utility vehicle? 

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People tend to bristle when companies toy around with the tokens of their childhood, especially if there's a hint of cynicism about it. So the blowback against Mazda's latest ad campaign shouldn't come as too much of a surprise to anybody. The Japanese car maker has teamed up with Universal Pictures to cross-promote their new compact crossover sport utility vehicle, the CX-5, with the movie studio's upcoming adaptation of The Lorax, Dr. Seuss' much beloved environmental ode for kids. 

Yes, a car company is using The Lorax to hock its new gas-powered SUV. That's really the bottom line. They even claim it has the "only truffala tree seal of approval." As far as some are concerned, the top brass at Mazda and Universal might as well have gotten together at a corporate retreat, picked up a few hatchets, and chopped down some truffula trees by hand.*

But how shameless is this ad, really? It depends on how you view of what's happening in the current car market, and whether or not it bodes well for the environment.

Vehicles like the CX-5 present a sort of conundrum for the green movement. For starters, while it's technically marketed as an SUV, the model really has very little in common with the Chevy Suburbans and other large, gas thirsty predators that once roamed the highways. It's a crossover, meaning that while it looks a lot like an off-road ride, it's actually built on a car base instead of a truck base. It's also smaller. And while it runs on a traditional internal combustion engine, it uses relatively advanced technology like direct fuel injection that helps it get better gas mileage -- about 28 miles-per-gallon combined city and highway. 

So as far as SUVs go, it's pretty eco-friendly. It's a marked improvement from the kind of monsters that suburbanites were using to commute a few years ago, and vehicles like it are becoming wildly popular. Americans bought more than 2.7 million crossovers last year, about 69 percent of the SUVs sold. 

On first blush, this sounds like environmental progress. But if you're worried about America's fossil fuel consumption, cars like the CX-5 provide you more than a reasons to be concerned. 

First, there's the issue of whether crossovers are actually replacing gas guzzlers on the roads. If Americans are ditching their Cherokees for leaner, greener models, then the CX-5 and its automotive cousins represent an improvement over the old status quo. But if auto buyers are actually choosing crossovers over smaller cars, that's a different story entirely. By offering them slightly improved gas mileage on a fundamentally less efficient design, car companies would be helping consumers indulge in their worst impulses. Yes, you can have a big car without feeling too much pain at the pump or feeling guilty about global warming. Yes, you can have your cake and eat it too. 

So will crossovers gently wean U.S. drivers off of outsized trucks, or just keep them hooked? Only time will tell, but one should never underestimate America's love of size. 

The second issue is whether auto makers are inadvertently undermining newer, greener vehicle technologies by steering consumers towards cars with more fuel efficient internal combustion engines. Bloomberg Businessweek reports that hybrid vehicles lost market share last year, falling to 2.2 percent of new sales from a high of 2.9 percent in 2009, as customers turned to less expensive standard engine models such as the Chevy Cruze and Hyundai Elantra. Those small, gas burning cars cost thousands of dollar less than hybrids like the Toyota Prius but can still do 40 mpg on the highway, making them broadly appealing for cost conscious drivers. Meanwhile, despite the fanfare around electric vehicles such as the Chevy Volt and Nissan Leaf, some automakers are ditching hybrid models to focus on better gas engine technology.

In short, the better standard-engine technology gets, the harder it becomes to convince consumers to transition away from gasoline. It offers a short term environmental gain, but a potential long term problem. 

Hence the conundrum for environmentalists. SUVs like the CX-5 are a step up from the conspicuously inefficient models of yesteryear, but also an imperfect bridge to the future. They're not as excessive as an Escalade, nor as virtuous as a Volt. And while they might help us pump a little less gas now, they might help keep us dependent on dirty fuel in the future. 

Which brings us back to the ad. Mazda's car isn't completely without its green merits. But using everyone's favorite orange eco-warrior to advertise something that falls in the mushy middle of environmentally friendly vehicles is a bit, well, disrespectful. One imagines that if Dr. Seuss were still around, the company would have to work a little harder for that "truffula tree seal of approval."   

_________

*On the very off chance you haven't ever read the book, the Lorax is an imaginary woodland creature who tries in vain to stop the destruction of his native truffula forest. Now, as soon as you are finished with this post, please go to your nearest bookstore, find a copy, and reconnect your very deprived inner child. 

Image: Random House

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Jordan Weissmann is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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