Latest Terror Suspect: Your SUV

SUV on road, graphic generic

Two television ads that try to link gas-guzzling sport utility vehicles to terrorist funding are generating controversy even before they begin airing.

A group opposed to U.S. reliance on foreign oil is behind the 30-second ads, which their creator said are intended to be humorous parodies.

One commercial features a child's voiceover connecting the dots between a man filling his gas tank and terrorist training footage. The closing statement: "Oil money supports some terrible things. What kind of mileage does your SUV get?"

The other ad features talking heads commenting about their SUVs. One person says, "My kids think it's cool." Another says, "I helped blow up a nightclub."

But even before the commercials begin airing Jan. 12 in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco, Washington and Detroit, some television stations have already turned them down.

The ads were turned down by WABC in New York, KABC and KCBS in Los Angeles and WDIV in Detroit because the stations found them "controversial," said syndicated columnist Arianna Huffington, whose nonprofit group The Detroit Project is behind the campaigns.

"This campaign is not designed to demonize SUV owners," Huffington said. "We want to encourage customers to connect the dots and make socially responsible consumer choices."

The campaign was inspired by a November column, "Support Our Troops, Dump that SUV," in which Huffington wrote that Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham had warned that "reducing our nation's dependence on imported oil is crucial to our national energy security."

Huffington said she received more than 5,000 supportive letters and e-mails in response to the column.

Opponents criticized the campaign's approach. Sam Kazman, general counsel of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, called it "elitist nonsense." The institute is a business lobby that favors a nongovernment approach to regulatory issues.

"(Huffington's) agenda basically is one of anti-mobility," Kazman said. "This is becoming a very common car that a lot of people are buying and some of them have perfectly valid reasons."

The Detroit Project was created by Americans for Fuel Efficient Cars, a group co-founded by Huffington, film producer Lawrence Bender, environmental activist Laurie David, and movie and TV agent Ari Emanuel.

The $50,000 cost of creating the ads was covered by thousands of individual small contributions. Major donors contributed the $175,000 to buy air time.

The ads, written and directed by Scott Burns, who was part of the creative team responsible for the "Got Milk" campaign, will air this Sunday on "Face the Nation" and "Meet the Press."

Other current public service ads also take a connect-the-dots approach — a recent series of spots by the Office of National Drug policy links American drug use to murderous narcotics cartels.

The Bush administration in December announced a plan to increase fuel economy in American passenger vehicles.

The plan calls for an increase in fuel efficiency from the current 20.7 miles per gallon to 22.2 mpg by the 2007 model year.

The fuel efficiency standard for light trucks — a vehicle class that includes sport utility vehicles, pickups and vans — has been set at 20.7 mpg since 1996. Under the proposal, it would increase to 21 mpg by the 2005 model year, 21.6 by 2006 and 22.2 by 2007. The car standard is 27.5 mpg and does not change.

Critics claimed the increase was too small to have any practical effect.

Some carmakers contend that increasing fuel efficiency standards would create safety problems because it would require lighter vehicles that would be less resilient in accidents.

But a recent Congressional Budget Office study finds that evidence on the safety impact is mixed.

"Policy changes that reduce gasoline consumption could have varying effects on the safety of driving. Policies that led to smaller or lighter cars would tend to make accidents more dangerous, whereas policies that led to lighter trucks could reduce fatalities," the report found. "Policies that encouraged people to drive fewer miles would tend to lower the number of accidents."

Other studies have claimed that safety might not be impacted if auto manufacturers could devise more efficient ways to burn fuel rather than simply lightening car weight.

According to a 2000 report by the Government Accounting Office, gas prices fell 60 percent from 1981 to 1999 and the transportation sector's oil consumption rose from roughly 10 million to nearly 13 million barrels a day.

"As the proportion of light trucks has increased and other shifts have occurred in the automotive fleet, the average fuel economy of new passenger vehicles has fallen," the GAO study found, to its lowest level since 1980.

In 2001, the United States imported more oil from Saudi Arabia than any other foreign country — 588 million barrels worth. Saudi Arabia has been accused of doing little to prevent wealthy families from supporting charities that funnel money to terrorist groups, a charge the Saudis deny.

America also took in 289 million barrels from Iraq.