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Friday, 9 December 2011

Fun Cars!

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".


  1. I can't help but feel that this article is a bit self-serving...

    Your apparent loathing for the car as a means to an ends and subjective lack of enjoyment while using them comes off not as a critique on cars and their place in society, rather a “them vs. us” fallacy.

    Driving, driving enthusiasts and enjoyment of driving are not fringe concepts or a fabrication of marketing. Top Gear (a show dedicated solely to the “fun” one has with vehicles of all forms) is amongst the most watched shows of any platform on the planet. To say vehicles and fun have to be mutually exclusive in spite of the popularity of this show, the significant following of leagues such as F1, Indy and Nascar seems ill advised if not entirely hollow.

    As for the Cruze add, if you’ve grown up in small town anywhere Canada, the car is the most instrumental part of being able to partake in any of the activities youths supposedly enjoy. For anyone that doesn’t live in, or even reasonably close to a city centre, vehicle ownership is literally the only instrument of facilitating these experiences. Sure the Cruze as an entity isn’t the only vehicle that can be used to indulge, but what would your suggestion for another angle be? A high frame rate shot of a major highway with the slogan “Chevy Cruze, we know commuting.” The premise of advertising is to present your offering as something someone needs or will fulfill the need in a way that exceeds that of competitors. “What do young people like doing? Listening to music? Hanging out in urban centres? Eating food from Asia, South America, and the Middle East?” Does the Cruze not actually facilitate all of the following? Car advertising is possibly the least deceitful of any pitch you will hear. Why if car ownership can facilitate these activities, can it not infer a link to one benefiting from the other?

    As for the argument that the evil car and oil company’s spawned the suburbs and that a metropolis using mass transit is the way it was meant to be…I’m not even sure if this was just hyperbole or a genuine attempt at a connection. The piling of people in any location has the ultimate outcome of creating infrastructure nightmares such as waste removal, supply of drinking water and food (none of which is produced by those consuming them), elevated infectious disease concerns, greater social anomie and accompanying violent crime rates, and near complete removal of green space. Even if we were to all channel our inner hippie and do away with cars and the like, metropolises would remain a maze of streets as you still need to supply the leviathan with fresh meat and remove its waste. The infrastructure scorned by our bipedal brethren exists to support their incessant need to live in completely unsustainable areas.

    The damage our non-“careless” youth create by living in unsustainable areas while espousing a need for change is just another afterthought by a group of self-appointed stewards for social righteousness. Cities were being “made to be biked and walked” is a fundamental eco-warrior distraction for the environmental nightmare forced human masses create regardless of transportation mode. (

    Youth car ownership may be on the decline. So are wages relative to cost of living, the job market, the economy as a whole, and nest eggs of the parents who often helped with such matters. But let’s not let facts misconstrue an argument from “someone who is very focused on criticising the assumptions in our modern, Western society.”

  2. Thank you so much for your comment. I really wish you had left your name on here, but I am going to assume that you are the person who authored the article posted in the link you added.

    I must concede: virtually everything you posted was correct. Thank you for so articulately voicing some crucial points. Cars absolutely are necessities for people in rural (and many urban) settings, particularly in places like Canada. Highly dense accumulation of people poses significant challenges to infrastructure, social relations, and the environment. Young people are also rarely in good enough financial shape to purchase cars. Many cars are beautiful and demonstrate mastery over engineering - they deserve to be recognised. All the items are definitely true.

    Where I would disagree with you is regarding the fun element. There are cars out there that are fun to drive because they are actually fun to drive (off-road, good handling, racing etc). But more and more cars are marketed as fun to drive around cities and a growing number of images in these ads are things that are totally unconnected to the cars. Listening to your favourite music doesn't require a car. Eating shawarma doesn't require car. These acts are certainly fun, but are not precluded by cars.

    I think we live in a society that needs cars. The vast majority of Canadians need a car, often on a daily basis. Driving is done because it is easier, more convenient, or perceived to be less expensive than other modes of transportation. I would argue that this is a function of infrastructure that is care-centred, such as suburbs, box stores, and highways. Moreover, these were created in the context of a demand for travel that is fast and flexible, which cars produce.

    To bring it back to the example of rural youth that you suggested, I think they should definitely drive cars. Those of us living in urban areas should work toward a better transportation network - involving public transit, walking, biking, and carpooling. I think those would foster community, produce more equality, promote health, and limit crime. Most driving in high density areas can be easily replaced by other modes of transit.

    Again, I want to thank you for your comment my friend and I look forward to further sparring!

  3. Once again I disagree with the premise that people NEED cars. Cars are convenient for people and allow people to avoid the discomforts involved with going outside, walking, waiting for a bus, carrying bags, etc. I'd like to hear some examples of people who actually need cars to survive. Give me an example of why you need a car and I'll give you a solution to the problem you think you're having!

    As for cars being fun, cars are not fun. Speed limits, traffic and uneducated drivers prevent that. At best you might consider a drive in the country 'pleasant'. Racing IS fun. Pushing the limits of engineering is fun. Unless you can get to a track, you're not pushing the limits of anything. There are so many better ways to get a thrill. Skiing, biking, hang gliding, rock climbing all provide more adrenalin than driving on city streets ever can. Oh wait... sorry, those all involve going outside and getting exercise. That might be uncomfortable. We wouldn't want that happening.

  4. Hey Quinn thanks for the comment. As I stated in my post numerous times, I do not believe that cars are fun. From personal experience, I've hardly ever enjoyed myself while driving.

    As for whether or not cars are needs, I think you are relating too much to your own personal experience. Living in urban areas is often easy to do without a car; however, you have never lived in a rural or remote community where cars are much more central to having access to important basic needs. But you are right in that we don't 'need' cars. We could get by, even in rural and remote environments, without them, though it would be very challenging.

    I think you make a great point about finding thrill elsewhere! More people need to take your advice. Though I will point out that parasailing or whitewater rafting often require a commute by car.