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Features & Articles : Car Culture

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Time to get off the Wagen?
Enter the SUV.

Why stop now? After all, the nineties saw SUV sales explode from 900,000 in 1991 to nearly 2.8 million last year. The numbers are hard to argue with, and most car companies certainly haven't. To make more room for SUV models like the popular Tahoe, Chevy shut down production of the Impala, for instance. And although Bill Ford calls himself a lifelong environmentalist and pledged to make his car company the leader in producing "clean" vehicles, he obviously couldn't resist producing the Excursion.

Until automakers stop making fuel-guzzling vehicles- until tougher government regulations are placed on automakers- or until the economy boom ends- or until gas prices shoot up more unbelievably high- or until we all literally "run out of gas," the desire for cool cars and SUVs is not likely to cease. In all honesty, we needn't waste our breath waiting for the former two scenarios to take place. That is, unless we change our own thinking. The auto market is of course consumer-driven. Therefore it's up to the consumers to determine and demand what we want. We've opted for cars that symbolize independence, ruggedness, adventure. But can we really be free when we're sitting in a backed-up honking jam of a mile of other so-called rugged, adventurous automobiles just like ours? Of course not. And the only tried and true method of reducing traffic is to drive less. For most of us, giving up our cars entirely is not a realistic option, at least not yet. But as most happy couples know, the key to a successful long-term relationship is giving each other space. If we truly love our cars and if we want to keep driving them and feeling free, we need to free ourselves from depending on them the way we do now. And a crucial first step in doing this involves understanding the psychology of car culture.

Subconscious Desires
Obviously the automotive industry has a pretty good handle on it. Besides automobile make and model brands, probably the only other brand names more indicative of our psychological desires and "Obsession"s are bestowed upon perfumes and cologne. Before World War II, advertisements for cars lauded their practicality and reliability. "Plymouth, 'the car that stands up best' and 'goes through in all kinds of weather,' says rural nurse Margaret Davidson," ran a 1937 ad. Such a mundane treatment would hardly lift an eyebrow in today's world of lifting techno and rock songs to arouse deep-seated notions that cars are conveyors of freedom and power.

As Ruth Shalit reported on last year, a recent marketing and design trend for automakers and oil companies involves delving into the subconscious connections between consumer desire and their products. When Daimler Chrysler wanted to rethink the look and engineering of their PT Cruiser model, for instance, they sought out not the expertise of a hotshot design team, but instead first looked to a psychiatrist. In essence, Jungian archetype specialist Dr. Clothaire Rapaille put a psychological spin on Chrysler's traditional mode of consumer research.

David Bostwick, director of market research at Daimler Chrysler told Salon: "The more we learn about American culture, the more we see how these vehicles fit into our psyche- the more we see how it is that we fit into the overall scheme of living. . .

'Freedom in America, means something different here than it does anywhere else,'Rapaille told me. 'It is tied in to this notion of wilderness.' . . . What that said to us is that people are looking for something that offers protection on the outside, and comfort on the inside."

Shalit also found that the Shell Oil company hired a psychiatrist to conduct market focus groups under hypnosis. Taking participants back to their first memories of being in a gas station, the psychiatrist was able to elicit emotional responses that bridged the connection between those long suppressed recollections to becoming like the present-day adult who said always filled her tank with the same brand of gasoline because she "felt good about Texaco."

The power of intuition and psychology has more influence over our car culture than we think. Since the Environmental Protection Agency and others' warnings haven't deterred many of us from making an average 15 car trips per day, or from buying gas-guzzling vehicles, it's time to try a different tactic. We have a lot to learn from Shell Oil- but it doesn't have to do with what brand or grade gas to pump in our tanks.

Instead of recalling our first encounter at the gas pump, it's time to think back to our first memories of walking and bicycling through our neighborhoods, to the store, home from school, to a friend's house. Maybe we'll find that we feel more free when coasting down the street on a bike or more comfortable strolling down a pleasant greenway trail. Or maybe we'll simply stop and think a little harder about whether it's really worth it, whether we really need to drive a mile to get a quart of milk.