Tuesday, April 22, 2003

I like the title of this piece in The Guardian. Short, sweet, and to the point.

Ultimately, though, the sustained popularity of SUVs represents a triumph of marketing. By the late 80s the car industry had identified a rich vein among the baby boomers. Their search was partly prompted by desperation.

The biggest-selling vehicle by the middle of the decade was the minivan. A perfectly practical car for anyone with a family but a disaster where car culture was concerned. With no sex appeal, danger, speed or power associated, you were left with a perfectly respectable vehicle that got you where you wanted to go and back again. With no invigorating image to accompany it, there was no premium a marketing team could attach to it.

But as pickup trucks and off-road vehicles shed some of their redneck image and started to become popular with suburban professionals, the car industry saw its chance. "Detroit marketers began to identify a new class of driver," wrote Paul Roberts in Harper's magazine. "A pleasure-seeking, self-oriented man or woman who liked to drive fast, cared deeply about a car's appearance, had an above-average fear of road dangers (including crime), and wasn't exactly eager to advertise his or her married status."

At the root of it was sex. "We have a basic resistance in our society to admitting that we are parents and no longer able to go out and find another mate... If you have a sports utility, you can have the smoked windows, put the children in the back, and pretend you're still single."

During the first Gulf war, when Hummers and dune buggies were bringing American values to the Middle East, SUVs were riding high in the popular psyche. Between 1985 and 1999, their sales increased tenfold. The fact that less than 10% of owners ever use the vehicles off road was irrelevant. With the adverts of big four-wheel-drive cars trekking through the wilderness you could aspire to outdoor pursuits even as you polluted the environment. Those who bought them were better educated, more prosperous and more introverted than the average American.

" 'Self-oriented' is the automakers' euphemism for self-centred," Bradsher argues. "SUV buyers tend to be more restless, more sybaritic, and less social than most Americans are."

Sitting up high and in such an imposing frame feels safer even if it isn't, says Bradsher. "It's a security blanket in an insecure world."

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