Don’t be so defensive

If you didn’t see employment services firm Monster’s Super Bowl ad featuring a driverless tractor-trailer running out of control, you probably at least heard about it.

In the span of 30 seconds, the truck barrels through a cornfield, crashes through a billboard, swerves through on-coming traffic and finally sets off an explosion at a gas station – all with a soundtrack straight out of Smokey and the Bandit. The point of the commercial is supposed to be that Monster (formerly, isn’t just for white-collar executives anymore. It’s also for blue-collar and “no-collar” job seekers and employers looking for them.

Not surprisingly, five major trucking industry associations raised objections to the ad. A joint “call to action” to their members said the commercial “depicts the trucking industry and America’s professional truck drivers in an unsafe and unrealistic manner.” They argued that the “grossly inaccurate portrayal of the American trucking industry trivializes the efforts of all of the trucking companies and professional drivers whose number one priority is to safely operate their vehicles each and every day.”

While the commercial doesn’t help the trucking industry’s image, neither does it do any real damage. It’s clearly a farce and, like most Super Bowl commercials, plays fast and loose with reality to grab viewers’ attention. Frankly, that’s what television viewers have come to expect during the Super Bowl. And at about $2 million for a 30-second spot, advertisers can’t exactly serve up the usual fare.

But the real issue here is not the Monster commercial or any other ad that’s perceived as negative by the trucking industry. The issue is who is in control of trucking’s image. Yes, we have road teams, drivers of the year and other shining examples to showcase here and there. But the only time trucking’s leaders seem truly motivated to take up the image cause is when there’s a perceived slight against the industry.

That sort of naysaying and defensiveness – even if justified – is rarely effective in changing opinions. Although the industry must continue to press the positive – the steadily improving safety record, heroes like Ron Lantz, the role of trucks in the economy – the winning tactic is to lay fault for highway crashes where fault usually lies: at the hands and feet of automobile drivers. They cause most accidents involving large trucks. Even the AAA Foundation says so.

If the trucking industry wants to change attitudes rather than vent, it should point its collective finger at society’s endorsement of speed, power and acceleration as not only acceptable for automobile drivers but sexy. If I were to pick the Super Bowl ad the trucking industry should slam, it would be a Cadillac spot featuring a car traveling so fast that it drags a road sign in its wake. An even more offensive but less recent ad from Volvo featured a father who raced through traffic so he could watch his son’s swim meet and daughter’s soccer match simultaneously.

Such car commercials may be barely more realistic than the Monster ad, but they suggest that speeding is a good thing. At least the Monster ad implies that in the hands of a safe, professional driver, the driverless truck wouldn’t be wreaking such havoc.

The trucking industry should adopt a posture of pointing to a solution, not one of denying responsibility for the problem. Last year, former American Trucking Associations President William Canary coined a great battle cry: Safe speed saves lives. It’s simple, catchy and subtly hints that people should focus on what drivers do, not who they are. We should see and hear the phrase far more often than we do.

In the Super Bowl, a great defense almost always beats a great offense. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers proved that conventional wisdom once again. But on the field of public opinion, a great offense wins every time.