I’ve been wondering about something. Here in small town America, when I walk downtown, I see swarms of pickup trucks parked outside the coffee shops and restaurants, especially the ones that cater to the older citizens on a tight budget, like McDonalds (Mickey D is huge with old retirees) and a local homestyle restaurant, DeToys. These are massive vehicles to ferry their owners a few miles to a cheap eatery, where they emerge looking like shriveled pot-bellied cowboy-wanna-bes on stick-like legs, where they hobble in to scrape change out of their pockets to buy a cup of bad coffee off the dollar menu. They make me look young and spry and sensible. Note that I’m not complaining about them being old and poor — if anything, we should take better care of the elderly — but the jarring incongruity of these people driving around in something that’s a small step down from a monster truck.
I don’t quite understand the mindset behind their priorities. All my life I’ve been getting the smallest car I can fit the family into, and my kids will testify to that…perhaps bitterly, as they recall family vacations in cramped vehicles. I aspire to someday have a car that is shrunk down to just big enough to hold me and my wife, gets phenomenal gas mileage (EV, preferably), and has good safety ratings. That’s all I want in a machine that I use to move from point A to more distant point B.
But then, it turns out I’m un-American.
Car companies…knew what people really wanted: to project an image of selfish superiority. And then they sold it to them at a markup.
The picture they painted of prospective SUV buyers was perhaps the most unflattering portrait of the American way of life ever devised. It doubled as a profound and lucid critique of the American ethos, one that has only gained sharper focus in the years since. And that portrait is largely the result of one consultant who worked for Chrysler, Ford, and GM during the SUV boom: Clotaire Rapaille.
Rapaille, a French emigree, believed the SUV appealed—at the time to mostly upper-middle class suburbanites—to a fundamental subconscious animalistic state, our “reptilian desire for survival,” as relayed by Bradsher. (“We don’t believe what people say,” the website for Rapaille’s consulting firm declares. Instead, they use “a unique blend of biology, cultural anthropology and psychology to discover the hidden cultural forces that pre-organize the way people behave towards a product, service or concept”). Americans were afraid, Rapaille found through his exhaustive market research, and they were mostly afraid of crime even though crime was actually falling and at near-record lows. As Bradsher wrote, “People buy SUVs, he tells auto executives, because they are trying to look as menacing as possible to allay their fears of crime and other violence.” They, quite literally, bought SUVs to run over “gang members” with, Rapaille found.
Another obvious contrast is that most of the SUVs and trucks I see are clean and shiny, maintained for the prestige. They are not working vehicles. I’ve seen real working vehicles: when I was a kid visiting my uncle’s ranch, they had a beat-up old pickup, rusted and filthy, that we’d load up with hay bales in the morning and drive out over the rocky sagebrush-covered fields to scatter food for the cows. That was not a truck you’d drive into town, not unless you were desperate to get away. Most of the people driving these things are demonstrating some warped status-seeking behavior.
Car companies marketed SUVs towards these people with advertisements featuring SUVs dominating roads, climbing boulders, and other extreme feats even though, by the auto industry’s own research, somewhere between one and 13 percent of SUV owners actually drove their vehicles off-road, and most of those who said they did considered flat dirt roads “off-roading.” In other words, auto companies spent billions of dollars on marketing every year to nudge people to buy over-engineered, inefficient, and expensive vehicles in order to allay irrational fears far out of touch with the lives they actually had.
This cynical marketing worked stunningly well. In 2019, the seven best-selling vehicles in the U.S., and 13 of the top 20, were either pickup trucks or SUVs (pickups, of course, now incorporate many of the same marketing tropes as SUVs from the early 2000s). According to the Detroit Free Press, pickups and SUVs now account for 60 percent of new vehicle sales.
Perhaps no vehicle exemplified this trend more than Hummer. Owned by AM General until GM bought the brand in 1999, Hummer embodied a specific time and place in the American psyche that embellished the SUV persona of overcompensation for insecurity and fear.
Michael DiGiovanni, a GM market researcher who persuaded GM to buy Hummer and ended up running its Hummer operations, told Bradsher the $100,000 vehicle was marketed to “rugged individualists” who were “people who really seek out peer approval,” a delicious irony considering how much other road users loathe Hummers. Like their general SUV-owning brethren, few used the vehicle for actual off-roading.
They aren’t even safer than my tiny little Honda! There’s an 11% greater chance of a fatality in an SUV than in other vehicles, despite their larger size.
Now I’m wondering if the reason I’m not interested in a gargantuan truck is that I watch very little commercial TV, so I don’t see the advertising, and the online targeted advertising I do get doesn’t even try to interest me in buying small tanks. If you watch Fox News, are you more likely to want the biggest metal box you can buy to protect yourself from the Urbans and Immigrant Hordes?