Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Why do some people detest the Hummer?

The Hummer’s high fuel consumption and concerns for global warming are the main reasons mentioned by critics of this vehicle. Although these factors are not totally unrelated to this negative sentiment, they are not the real reasons; the truth lies elsewhere. What people detest is not its gluttony for fuel, nor really its size, since other vehicles, such as the Lincoln Navigator and Cadillac Escapade, consume just as much gas and are almost as large. Given the international community’s contempt to the American intervention in Iraq and the opposition of a majority of Americans to it, the military origin of the vehicle is an aggravating factor, yet still insufficient to justify a feeling of hatred; the Jeep is also of military origin and nobody hates it. We thus have to look elsewhere.

Alexander Sutherland Neill tells us that love and hate are in fact one and the same thing: Love and hate are not opposites. The opposite of love is indifference. Hatred is another side of love-a love thwarted. Hatred always contains an element of fear (A. S. Neill, Summerhill, A radical approach to education, Londres, Victor Gollancz, 7e impression, 1973, p. 301). What some people detest has more to do with the Hummer’s personality, most likely because it scares them somewhat, rightly so when one considers the appearance of the vehicle, the advertising slogans and arguments used to sell it, and sometimes even the aggressive behaviour of some Rambo randomly crossed on the road!

Wheels whose size allows the Hummer to “clamber over a 40 cm vertical barrier”, a ground clearance which places its grille at nose level, said grille evoking the gaping mouth of an animal with sharp teeth. Agreeably, those are elements that can intimidate most people. Marketing experts tell us that advertising is designed for a specific market segment; people who are not targeted can be indifferent to it, find it offensive even. Nevertheless, advertising has an impact on them! Do you really that the aggressive advertising arguments quoted in a recent blog, the best example of which being “Move in for the thrill”, can leave people that are not targeted indifferent? On the contrary, they can easily create a sense of instinctive aversion or worry, or even fear in people who are more sensitive than others.

Finally, without maintaining that all Hummer drivers are Rambos of the road, it is impossible to believe that the advertising arguments used have influence over them. The mere fact that they have purchased a Hummer contradicts this hypothesis.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The Hummer’s identity

Last February I received an email from an owner of a Cadillac CTS, saying that to buy a vehicle he must “first fall in love” with it. In a PBS interview, Clotaire Rapaille concurs: “The PT Cruiser is a car [that] when people see it, they say, "Wow, I want it." Some people hate it; we don't care. There is enough people that say, "Wow, I want it," to make a big success […] What is it that make[s] the PT Cruiser a reptilian car? First, the car has a strong identity. What people told us is that "We're tired of these cars that have no identity. I have good quality, good gas mileage, good everything else, but when I see the car from a distance, I have to wait till the car gets close to know what it is, and I have to read the name." When you go to see your mother, she doesn't need to read your name to know who you are, you see? We want this reptilian connection. And so this notion of identity, absolutely key, was very reptilian for a car.”

The PT Cruiser is a break (station wagon) type vehicle whose design is somewhat retro; it has pleased a market segment so much, that General Motors felt the need to produce a similar vehicle, the Chevrolet HHR, which GM classifies as an SUV. The Hummer is also a vehicle with a strong personality. Here is what Rapaille thinks of it and of advertising used to promote it: “the Hummer is a car with a strong identity. It's a car in a uniform. I told them, put four stars on the shoulder of the Hummer, you will sell better. If you look at the campaign, brilliant. I have no credit for it, just so you know, but brilliant. They say, "You give us the money, we give you the car, nobody gets hurt." I love it! It's like the mafia speaking to you […] They’re not telling you, "Buy a Hummer because you get better gas mileage." You don't. This is cortex things. They address your reptilian brain.” This is a somewhat special conception of sales and marketing, to which I do not subscribe. However, I must bow before the evidence; this approach works with a segment of the population.

As we have just seen, the fact that some people detest the Hummer does not overly concern General Motors. At most, the managers of this GM subsidiary intend to focus on the H3 model, which has a lesser appetite for gas, and offer a slightly smaller model, the H4, in 2010. (Hummer’s Web site, consulted August 15 2007). However, I se this strategy more as a strategy to lower the product line (B. Duguay, Consommation et luxe, La voie de l’excès et de l’illusion, Montréal: Liber, 2007) rather than an attempt to seduce the Hummer’s opponents, a reaction to the decline in the sales of the H2 model of 22% in 2005 and 27% in 2006 (N. Bérubé, « Le Hummer sur une voie de garage », La Presse, 30 mai 2007, p. A24). Yet, I do not see the H2 disappear because, for some, its gas consumption alone is not sufficient reason to do without it; Gasoline consumption is a rational factor that may discourage some people, but not the true aficionados. Moreover, if the price of gasoline decreases a little, as it appears to be the case in the summer and fall of 2007, I would not be at all surprised to see sales of the H2 bounce back, or at least stop dropping.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

SUV buyers

Who are SUV buyers? Based on large scale market surveys performed yearly for the automobile industry, Keith Bradsher describes them as having little self-confidence and being conceited. They are often insecure about their marriage and uncomfortable with parenthood. They often lack assurance in their driving abilities. They are above all “self-centered” and “self-absorbed”, with little interest for their neighbours and communities (K. Bradsher, High and Mighty, SUVs – The world’s most dangerous vehicles and how they got that way, New York, Public Affairs, 2002, p. 101.)

It would thus be the survival instinct and expects for maximum safety without consideration for consequences to others that drive people to prefer SUVs, especially the Hummer whose military origin confers a particularly robust image. The vehicle’s disproportionate size, particularly in the case of the Hummer H2, also allows those driving it to literally and figuratively dominate the road. Now, in « Consommation et luxe, La voie de l’excès et de l’illusion » (Consumption and luxury, The way to excess and illusion - in libraries November 13, in French only for the time being) I mention the fact that one finds in luxury a desire to dominate others, making the Hummer an object of power.

Advertising for the Hummer contributes to create this feeling of domination by putting greater emphasis on the vehicle’s warrior image. Upon entering the Hummer’s home page (Hummer’s English version of the Canadian Web site, consulted August 15 2007), you are presented with a cloud of black smoke very suggestive of a battlefield, behind which hides the new Hummer H3 Limited Edition, and the slogan “Move in for the thrill”; this is a very aggressive pun on the expression “Move in for the kill” , which implies killing an enemy. Another advertising line “48 units are now standing by” reinforces the vehicle’s militaristic image. Advertising being a major cultural influence, should one be surprised to occasionally meet a somewhat aggressive Hummer driver? In such a case, Rapaille may be right; the reptilian brain dominates, wild instinct supersedes reason and emotions.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Hummer VS MINI

In the following weeks, I invite you to a series of seven chronicles on the theme: Why do we love… or hate a vehicle? To shed light on this question, I will use two vehicles whose philosophies are a world apart: the Hummer and the MINI. Let us begin with the largest one.

The Hummer is in a class of vehicles commonly known as Sports Utility Vehicles (SUV), or 4X4; they are derived from the Jeep, a vehicle which has known its hours of glory on all theatres of operations of the Second World War. Originally conceived by the American Bantam Car Company, the US Army signed manufacturing contracts with Willys-Overland and Ford in 1941. After the war, Willys-Overland continued production alone, Ford no longer being interested; the company is sold to Kaiser in 1953, who continued production. Kaiser is bought by AMC in 1970, which got into a partnership with Renault in 1979; in 1987, Renault sold its stake to Chrysler, attracted by AMC’s Jeep division (4wheelz Web Site).

The Hummer leaves no one indifferent; some love it intensely, others hate it just as much. In fact, few vehicles, maybe none, give rise to such passion; have you ever heard someone say that he detests a Jeep, a Land Rover, a Ford Explorer, a Chevy Suburban…? Yet, they are SUV type vehicles! How should one understand these reactions?

First of all, let us consider those who love the hummer. SUVs became very popular in North America in the 1990s. Clotaire Rapaille teaches us that the reason of this popularity rests in the structure of the brain, which comprises three parts: the cortex, the limbic system and the reptilian brain. The first takes care of logic, learning, abstract thought and creativity. The second is the center of our emotions, which often take precedence over reason. The third is a remnant of the reptiles’ brain; this zone harbours the survival and reproduction instincts. Survival being more crucial to our existence than “feeling well” or “making sense” the reptilian brain always prevails. Instinct always wins over logic and emotion. Rapaille maintains that this happens to be the case for personal well-being, purchase decisions and even the choice of leaders (C. Rapaille, The Culture Code, New York, Broadway Books, 2006, p. 74).

I am not quite so definite; I would say rather than in some people, in certain circumstances, instinct prevails over reason and emotions. In others, in a different context, logic or emotions will triumph. In fact, intuition tells me that there is a close link between the predominance of one facet of the brain or another and self-image. Unfortunately, I have no empirical evidence to support my intuitive hypothesis for the moment.

I would like to know what you think of the reptilian brain theory.