Detroit Project Feels the Heat

LOS ANGELES Ads from the Detroit Project, a group associated with California gubernatorial hopeful Arianna Huffington, have come under fire in the wake of so-called “eco-terrorist” acts committed last week at SUV dealerships in several West Coast cities.

The Sport Utility Vehicle Owners of America on Wednesday issued a “cease and desist” petition signed by 6,065 of its members to Huffington, urging her “stop encouraging groups like the Earth Liberation Front.” Several fires, apparently coordinated with less dramatic acts of vandalism, were claimed by ELF, though no one has yet been arrested for the crimes.

Detroit Project ads linked owners of SUVs to terrorism in the Middle East and used provocative lines such as “What would Jesus drive?” SUVOA’s campaign of parody ads starring “Jesus” Rivera ran in Los Angeles, Washington and Detroit.

Huffington denounced the crimes: “What these people are doing isn’t activism, it’s vandalism, and I strongly oppose it,” she said in a statement released yesterday. “I have nothing against SUV owners. My problem is with Detroit.”

The most recent incident, the Aug. 22 arson torching of a SUV and GM Hummer dealership in West Covina, Calif., followed a string of crimes dating back to March 2001, when 30 Chevrolet Suburbans and Tahoes were damaged, causing an estimated $1 million loss to a dealer in Eugene, Ore. The dealer had been firebombed just nine months earlier, according to the Eugene Register-Guard. Since then, similar crimes were committed against dealers in Michigan, July 2001, destroying Ford Expeditions; a series of ELF attacks from July to November 2002, in Richmond, Va.; and an ELF-claimed arson at a Pennsylvania SUV dealer in January 2003.

During that spate of eco-terrorism, syndicated columnist Huffington wrote a piece in which she linked the use of non-fuel efficient cars to dependency upon foreign oil and therefore supported Middle East terrorism. The column endorsed the proposed ad scripts of Scott Burns, who is now directing her campaign commercials [Adweek Online, Aug. 27). Parker Blackman, managing director of Fenton Communications, San Francisco, which also produced the “What would Jesus drive?” ads, is Huffington’s campaign press secretary.

“I can’t draw a direct correlation [between the crimes] to the ads,” said Chris Preuss, staff director for government affairs and technology communications for General Motors. He noted that similar crimes predate the campaign. “But our polling suggested that no one thought the ads were anything but offensive.”

Preuss noted the irony of radical ecological groups causing pollution: “Even the Hummer is meeting stringent California [emission] standards,” he said. “There is no question that the burning of SUVs and dealerships emits significantly more emissions than all those SUVs would have produced over their lifetimes.”