Friday, November 21, 2008

Selling ice boxes to Eskimos

The S.O. and I got to talking this morning about the auto industry, the economy, and the role advertising plays in pushing products people don't really need. Not surprisingly quite a few of the blogs we both read have been opining on the first two, maybe not so much the third.

We're pretty much in agreement that the typical American consumer can be an idiot when it comes to falling for auto industry advertising claims. Nothing new about that. Back in the 1920s Charles Kettering knew people wanted to buy status, so he developed a hierarchy for General Motors: Chevrolet was the el cheapo line of transportation and marketed to the ordinary working slob, then it went on up the income and status scale: Pontiac to Oldsmobile to Buicks (well known as doctors' cars) and finally the ultimate, Cadillac (the ride of lawyers). Kettering was a marketing genius -- he also came up with the idea of planned obsolescence: make minor cosmetic changes annually, and so convince consumers they need new cars when they really don't. Car running just fine? Still looking good? Doesn't matter -- the new models have more cup holders, and everyone knows multiple cup holders are worth going deeper into debt for. No one wanted to be the poor soccer mom whose mini-van had only four cup holders when everyone else's mini-van had six.

In recent years I've been amused by the way people fell for advertising claims that promoted vehicles using language that was so dishonest it would have made a politician cringe. Manufacturers wanted to discourage station wagon sales because although station wagons were popular with families they were classified as passenger cars so had to meet the same safety and emission standards. Solution? Develop the mini-van which was classified as Utility Vehicle with different standards than cars, and then push it as being "safe" when the opposite was true (higher center of gravity, making it much more prone to rollover than a station wagon), and watch the naive soccer moms line up to buy it. Ditto SUVS: Explorers, Jeep Cherokees, Suburbans, you name it. Less safe but promoted as more.

I don't want to come off as too judgemental. I'm as susceptible as the next person when it comes to falling for bogus sales pitches. In all honesty, if I had the bucks to buy a new vehicle I'd be driving a 2008 Nissan XTerra to work instead of our mid-90s Ford. I think people should be free to spend their own money on whatever weird indulgence they want, and if that includes over-priced humongous SUVs then that's their privilege. I can even empathise a little (but not much) with someone who makes the mistake of buying a gas hog just before gas prices sky rocket, although I'd also be thinking that anyone who can afford $600 or higher car payments monthly shouldn't be fazed by gas prices doubling. If they are, they were obviously living much too close to the edge on their budget. (Translation: If you can afford it, buy it, but don't whine to the rest of us when you discover you guessed wrong about the amount of slack in your budget.)


  1. I took to task people who bought the big American stuff to task. The one word I never used in the whole dang post was unsustainable. All that gas guzzling is unsustainable.

    But, as you said, most of the people who went for those types of vehicles, did so at the constant and well-financed behest of the manufacturers.

  2. i had watched so many commercials about the large screen tvs that i was convinced that i had to have one..then i started thinking, what a concept...i dont need a big tv screen...i'd like to have one...i want to have one..but i dont need to have one..screw them commercials.
    glad youre back taking comments..

  3. I drove a 1986 Jetta until this summer. It got 28 miles to the gallon in the city. That was when we had standards for fuel efficiency. Finally if cost too much to repair every year when it failed its safety inspection. My neighbor had a clean, well cared for and very cherry 1988 Dodge Caravan and was selling it for $2,000 and I offered $1,500. He accepted my offer and so I now am the proud owner of an enormous vehicle that gets 8 MPG, but is clean as a whistle and very well maintained. I hope it's my last car purchase. I take one of my neighbors shopping once a week. That's about the extent of my driving. I put about three hundred miles a year on a vehicle. The Jetta had less than 100,000 miles on it. The Caravan has less than 80,0000 miles on it. But it is quite luxurious for me. This is my first car that has a great sound system. I drove the Jetta for years without heat or air conditioning. Now I have both. And cup holders. These are the choices the poor make.


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