Features & Articles : Car Culture
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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.
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 Salon.com 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
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.