We have all seen hundreds of thousands of advertisements just this year alone. Over our lifetime we have been exposed to a number of commercials, posters, telemarketers, flyers, product placements, and many more sinister and sublime marketing techniques. According to one of my favourite authors, Terry O'Reilly, advertising is the greatest art form of the twentieth century.
As someone who is very focused on criticising the assumptions in our modern, Western society, I am fascinated about car culture in North America, I have been thinking a lot lately about what I see as a relatively new trend in advertising automobiles in the past year or so, which I will explain shortly.
Let's put this into historical perspective. Over the past century the car has become symbolic of North America and a lifestyle of choice, prosperity, and hard work. While cars were marketed successfully before the Second World War, it wasn't until the 1950s that the automobile became such a salient representation of North American culture. This was obviously shaped by the massive economic boom fueled by post-war reconstruction, but more importantly, the meteoric rise of cars was made possible by changes brought in by government. As the population of North America began to grow at an unprecedented rate, cities and national governments looked at ways of addressing this concern. Suburbs were the widely adopted solution, favoured by urban planners and politicians, who were influenced by automotive giants in the United States. This came at the expense of public transit and cities that were made to be biked and walked.
It soon became clear that in order to be successful car ownership was necessary. This is particularly interesting when the common attitude is that the car is a status symbol. Very rarely are status symbols necessities in society, so it is something to think about.
While cars were necessary, they needed to be marketed by their respective manufacturers. Advertisements in the 1950s focused on the car as linked to patriotism and freedom, an idea which stuck for the long term. It was not until the 1990s that this emphasis changed. Modern car commercials focused on cars for absolutely everything: rugged trucks, elegant sedans, powerful coupes, and practical family vehicles. Marketers became increasingly more adept at appealing to the markets that they thought would be interested in their cars.
Two concerns became salient in the past 15 years. The first, which came about in the 1990s, was safety. Manufacturers competed with each other for the best safety ratings in their classes. This is best explained by the rapid rise of the Sport Utility Vehicle (for more information check out The Spirit Level). By the mid-2000s the focus had shifted to how fuel efficient their cars were. There are countless examples of commercials that appeal to this, but there has been an attempt by virtually every type of car to make their vehicles more fuel efficient, from trucks to luxury vehicles, to the cross-over.
Now, post-2010 I see the trend of cars becoming fun. Despite the fact that I don't believe what I see in commercials on a general basis, I can see safety and fuel economy as important things you need in a car. However, this is not true of fun. I have never had a lot of fun driving. Whether it is the rush hour traffic jam, the 7-hour road trip, or the slow traverse through a snowstorm late at night, driving is rarely ever fun. Not to mention, having a car means carrying debt, buying insurance, paying for maintenance, and driving people around because you have a car and they don't.
Despite this, marketers, fearing that young people aren't buying cars like in the old days, are targeting youth with sleek ads that make owning a car look really exciting. Oddly enough, the driving isn't really the fun part. Certain makes and models of cars have been marketed as fun, but it was because they are so-called high performance. The cars that are marketed as fun now have no precedent.
Take, for example, the 2012 Cruze. The appeal of this car is the "international" experience. What do young people like doing? Listening to music? Hanging out in urban centres? Eating food from Asia, South America, and the Middle East? Why not have a commercial that shows them doing this, insinuating that these pass-times are congruent with owning a car - but not just any car, the 2012 Chevrolet Cruze. This is evident in its slogan: "Don't just drive, Cruze".
This drives me crazy. It really does. But that's marketing. I assume that once this formula gets tired these commercials will disappear and be replaced with something else. At this point it's impossible to know what, but they will find something to get the attention of the young people that are increasingly "carless".