Culture Jam Assignment

As stated in the advertisement, Volvo is aiming for at least 25% recycled plastic in cars by 2025. However, this seems like a weak promise at best when using words like “aiming”, especially when the timeline is just over 5 years from now. Volvo only just released its first electric car model, so it appears pretty hypocritical to commit to decreasing your environment impact by enticing people to buy your cars.

Hypocrisy aside, the ad itself seeks to grab readers attention by immediately presenting as a smear campaign against Volvo; coming on the heels of the emission scandal of 2014 and into the climate strikes of 2019, this ad would be especially enticing to unassuming viewers wondering what nefarious deeds Volvo has done now. After realizing the real purpose of the ad, to announce Volvo’s grand environmental plans, viewers are subconsciously guided to look inwards and feel shame about their own waste production so that they might feel good about consuming an environmentally friendly product. This follows from what Adam Curtis, in his documentary series, The Century of the Self, learned of Edward Bernays’ theories about making people want to buy things to make themselves feel better; by portraying Volvo as a “green” automobile alternative, consumers can not only subvert the guilt of buying a vehicle, but feel pride that they’re actually recycling waste by buying a Volvo.

The issue at hand is that, while buying items that comprise of recycled materials seems like a good thing to do, and it certainly is if buying said thing is unavoidable, but at only 25% recycled plastic, these Volvos are still creating more waste than they are recycling and that’s if they manage to reach their goal.

In my culture jam, I intended to bring the subtext of the advertisement to the forefront and highlight the hypocrisy of decreasing waste production by increasing consumption. By changing the headline, I hoped to encourage viewers to look inwards and reflect on their own consumption habits rather than outwardly blame corporations (not that corporations don’t deserve it). I found the image to be apt for while Volvo intended it to be a representation of their cars being made from things like plastic bottles, it can conversely be viewed as a reminder that, just because we don’t typically throw our cars away like we would trash, it doesn’t mean that they aren’t ultimately waste. Finally, the tagline is a final tongue-in-cheek dig at the absurdity of consuming more to decrease waste.

The fact is, few people actually live a zero waste lifestyle, especially in the first world where Volvos are sold. While I do not propose that everyone try to live that life, I think that people need to be mindful (and reminded) of their own impact. Similarly to a situation where people feel that they are saving or gaining money when they purchase a discounted item, people tend to focus on the amount of recyclable material they’re saving when buying certain items rather than the cost or waste produced by the manufacture of those items; for example, if a Volvo contains 25% recycled plastic, you’re not saving 25% recycled plastic from the landfill, you’re adding 50% recycled plastic to the landfill.

At the end of the day, the primary purpose of most ads is to sell people something and so it is hard to fault any company for trying to make money. I applaud Volvo’s efforts to use more recycled plastics in their vehicles, but I would have been more impressed if they offered some sort of trade in program for people to exchange their cars for more environmentally friendly ones – meaning electric or what have you, not something made of recycled plastic because at this point, the parts of your original car are a sunk cost.