Thursday, January 20, 2005

When Wimps Lose Their Minds

Earlier, I wrote this:

Whenever a big black SUV with a "W" bumper sticker passes me
on I-40 going 90mph in the work zone, my first thought is: "What is this guy
compensating for?"

Now, there is this in The New Yorker:

Big and Bad: How the S.U.V. ran over automotive safety.
(hat tip:

According to Bradsher, internal industry market
research concluded that S.U.V.s tend to be bought by people who are insecure,
vain, self-centered, and self-absorbed, who are frequently nervous about their
marriages, and who lack confidence in their driving skills. Ford's S.U.V.
designers took their cues from seeing "fashionably dressed women wearing hiking
boots or even work boots while walking through expensive malls." Toyota's top
marketing executive in the United States, Bradsher writes, loves to tell the
story of how at a focus group in Los Angeles "an elegant woman in the group said
that she needed her full-sized Lexus LX 470 to drive up over the curb and onto
lawns to park at large parties in Beverly Hills." One of Ford's senior marketing
executives was even blunter: "The only time those S.U.V.s are going to be
off-road is when they miss the driveway at 3 a.m."
Over the past decade, a number of
major automakers in America have relied on the services of a French-born
cultural anthropologist, G. Clotaire Rapaille, whose speciality is getting
beyond the rational--what he calls "cortex"--impressions of consumers and
tapping into their deeper, "reptilian" responses. And what Rapaille concluded
from countless, intensive sessions with car buyers was that when S.U.V. buyers
thought about safety they were thinking about something that reached into their
deepest unconscious. "The No. 1 feeling is that everything surrounding you
should be round and soft, and should give," Rapaille told me. "There should be
air bags everywhere. Then there's this notion that you need to be up high.
That's a contradiction, because the people who buy these S.U.V.s know at the
cortex level that if you are high there is more chance of a rollover. But at the
reptilian level they think that if I am bigger and taller I'm safer. You feel
secure because you are higher and dominate and look down. That you can look down
is psychologically a very powerful notion. And what was the key element of
safety when you were a child? It was that your mother fed you, and there was
warm liquid. That's why cupholders are absolutely crucial for safety. If there
is a car that has no cupholder, it is not safe. If I can put my coffee there, if
I can have my food, if everything is round, if it's soft, and if I'm high, then
I feel safe. It's amazing that intelligent, educated women will look at a car
and the first thing they will look at is how many cupholders it has." During the
design of Chrysler's PT Cruiser, one of the things Rapaille learned was that car
buyers felt unsafe when they thought that an outsider could easily see inside
their vehicles. So Chrysler made the back window of the PT Cruiser smaller. Of
course, making windows smaller--and thereby reducing visibility--makes driving
more dangerous, not less so. But that's the puzzle of what has happened to the
automobile world: feeling safe has become more important than actually being
The S.U.V. boom
represents, then, a shift in how we conceive of safety--from active to passive.
It's what happens when a larger number of drivers conclude, consciously or
otherwise, that the extra thirty feet that the TrailBlazer takes to come to a
stop don't really matter, that the tractor-trailer will hit them anyway, and
that they are better off treating accidents as inevitable rather than avoidable.
"The metric that people use is size," says Stephen Popiel, a vice-president of
Millward Brown Goldfarb, in Toronto, one of the leading automotive
market-research firms. "The bigger something is, the safer it is. In the
consumer's mind, the basic equation is, If I were to take this vehicle and drive
it into this brick wall, the more metal there is in front of me the better off I'll be."

This is a new idea, and one largely confined to North
America. In Europe and Japan, people think of a safe car as a nimble car. That's
why they build cars like the Jetta and the Camry, which are designed to carry
out the driver's wishes as directly and efficiently as possible. In the Jetta,
the engine is clearly audible. The steering is light and precise. The brakes are
crisp. The wheelbase is short enough that the car picks up the undulations of
the road. The car is so small and close to the ground, and so dwarfed by other
cars on the road, that an intelligent driver is constantly reminded of the
necessity of driving safely and defensively. An S.U.V. embodies the opposite
logic. The driver is seated as high and far from the road as possible. The
vehicle is designed to overcome its environment, not to respond to it. Even
four-wheel drive, seemingly the most beneficial feature of the S.U.V., serves to
reinforce this isolation. Having the engine provide power to all four wheels,
safety experts point out, does nothing to improve braking, although many S.U.V.
owners erroneously believe this to be the case.
Perhaps the most troublesome aspect
of S.U.V. culture is its attitude toward risk. "Safety, for most automotive
consumers, has to do with the notion that they aren't in complete control,"
Popiel says. "There are unexpected events that at any moment in time can come
out and impact them--an oil patch up ahead, an eighteen-wheeler turning over,
something falling down. People feel that the elements of the world out of their
control are the ones that are going to cause them distress."

Don't you think Lakoff and Ducat would have a ball with this?

posted by coturnix @ 1:48 PM | permalink | (1 comments) | Post a Comment | permalink