Can Madison Avenue tread lightly in the West?

  Two men bludgeon a parked Land Rover with sledgehammers. They're swinging as hard as they can, yet they barely make a dent.


This is what Kirk Kirssin of Tread Lightly! considers a responsible television ad. Land Rover didn't have to show a truck blazing a new trail, thundering through a stream or chasing away wildlife to prove how tough its vehicles are. In fact, the Land Rover never even left the studio.


Kirssin knows a good advertisement when he sees one. As coordinator for Tread Lightly!'s first annual "Challenges in Advertising Award," he's studied dozens of magazine and TV submissions within the past few months. The winners will be judged and announced at the Greater Los Angeles Auto Show in January, he says.


Tread Lightly!, which started as a light-on-the-land push within the Forest Service and became an industry-supported nonprofit in 1990, launched the award program to try to rein in reckless advertising. Kirssin says bad ads go against his group's principles by implying that ripping up the land is OK. By giving kudos to the good ads, Kirssin hopes to set a new advertising standard that might change behavior on the ground.


It should also help improve the sport's image, says Jack Raudy, a public relations expert who works with ORVers in California. He says his clients call him whenever they see a bad ad. "They say, "Jack, that's not us. That's an advertising agency trying to make the sport look splashy and dashy to sell vehicles." "


Next to the winners, Tread Lightly! plans to display some examples of "bad ads' at the auto show. There are plenty out there to chose from, says John Gatchell of the Montana Wilderness Association. In his five years of fighting ORVs, he's collected a whole file full of zingers which he says reveal the true nature of the sport.


Gatchell says the manufacturers know what sells vehicles, and that's horsepower. Most promotions he's seen stress the idea that off-road vehicles are engineered to roam anywhere at "white-knuckle" speeds.


"Drink my dust, own the water, get extra nuts on your Sundays," is the kind of ad copy that sell ORVs because that's what people want, says Gatchell. Advertisers stress conquering nature, not communing with it. He's clipped one ad for a Polaris snowmobile that says, "Think of it as a bullet on skis." To that, Gatchell responds: "I'm beginning to think of it that way myself, as I see more and more public lands in the crosshairs."


Bethanie Walder of the group Road Rip has her own collection of egregious ads. One television spot she viewed recently showed a sport-utility vehicle crashing through a stream while a voice-over recited an excerpt from Norman Maclean's novella, A River Runs Through It. "It's totally outrageous," she says. "There's this really strong mixed message."


Walder and Gatchell are skeptical that cleaner advertising will change behavior. "That's what these vehicles are made for, to go into the backcountry," says Walder. "So what if they only show the car parked in a studio or a garage? Everyone knows these vehicles are meant to be driven outside."


Gatchell is even tougher: "All advertising is bad. Every time they sell one of these vehicles, it's another nail in nature's coffin."


*Elizabeth Manning