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The Car as Hero


Has any other industrial product so dominated its time?


Neil Shister

In 1997, the automobile industry spent $3.5 billion on advertising in the United States alone. Given that the market for cars in the best of years is around 10 million, that works out to $350 for each potential car buyer. In other words, to buy a piece of those consumers' consciousness, the auto industry spends a sum equivalent to sending each one to the movies every week for a year. Is it any wonder that the car is such a reigning artifact in American popular culture?

For sheer economic might, the automobile has few equals: it is directly or indirectly responsible for one out of seven American jobs-a figure staggering to comprehend, even for those who work in the industry. In the early nineties, I was consulting for Ford and went regularly to its headquarters in Dearborn, Michigan. One day I betrayed my ignorance by asking about the company's annual revenue. "Take a guess," I was instructed. This was back when a billion dollars was really worth a billion dollars. $25 billion? I ventured. "Damn near 100," came the reply.

Has any other industrial product so completely dominated its time? Consider its effect on just one single dimension of our lives, social geography: the car redesigned the space of America. Supported by post-World War II public policy-which provided cheap gas, the construction of superhighways, and tax breaks on mortgages-automobiles unleashed suburban sprawl. Now, in the wake of this transformation, we witness the unintended consequences: Wal-Marts killing off Main Streets, exacerbated racial segregation, "road rage," and so on.

On the mythic landscape the automobile looms equally large. A car may be a thing (within the industry people talk about "moving the iron"), but in the syntax of popular culture the machine is an animate being, an amalgam of mechanics and marketing upon which personality is first imprinted and then celebrated.

Automobile allegories are far from gender neutral. They are marked by a distinct manly flavor. Explicitly considering female consumers is only a recent phenomenon: at Ford in the early 1990s, it was a big deal to talk about "selling to women." If the car as an idealized symbol reigns as a primary touchstone of fantasy in the popular culture, its lexicon is distinctly white, middle-class, masculine.

For proof of this, let's look back into the archives for a moment and remember the imagery associated with the 1964 Pontiac GTO. This car was among those chosen as a historical landmark when, in 1996, the auto industry celebrated the one-hundredth anniversary of the American automobile (in 1896 the Duryea brothers of Springfield, Massachusetts were the first ever to build more than one vehicle from the same design, thereby inaugurating the industry). Among the others chosen were the 1909 Model T, which accounted for 50 percent of all auto registrations well into the 1920s; the 1931 Duesenberg, with its 320 horsepower engine and top speed of 130 miles per hour (hence the phrase "it's a Duesy"); and the 1984 Plymouth Voyager, which displaced the station wagon as the suburban vehicle of choice.

The '64 Pontiac GTO was included as the first "factory-built muscle car," designed for baby boomers with speed in mind-the prototype vehicle for a generation that came of age cruising the Miracle Mile. The display ad for its debut shows a readily recognizable corporate go-getter type of the era (not only coat and tie, but also a rakish fedora) behind the wheel of a convertible. The car is parked: we don't see it in use but rather as a stationary object of reverie. The focal point of the driver-and the visual center of the ad-is not the vehicle itself but a prim woman (think June Cleaver) leaning against the side talking with him, a hint of sensuous compliance in the tilt of her body.

Thirty years later the industry is in the midst of turbulent sea changes. Back then there were forty independent automobile companies; currently there are twenty, and we can expect the number to shrink to half a dozen in the next 10 years. The way we buy cars is changing: dealerships are on the way out, soon to be replaced by direct sales from manufacturers via the Internet, or centralized retail depots.

But as an object of male desire the automobile remains, if anything, even more securely ensconced than ever. In its 1998 report Protecting Youth at Work, the National Institute of Medicine's National Research Council examined youth in the job market, and concluded that nearly 80 percent of 16- and 17-year-olds hold a job at some point during high school. The bulk of these are middle-class kids, working not to supplement family income but to have their own disposable cash. According to Laurence Steinberg of Temple University, a member of the Council, girls spend their money mostly on clothes. And boys? They buy cars. "Most of the kids who work live in suburban areas and many suburban kids need, or feel as if they need, cars to maintain an adequate social life," Steinberg says. "Some probably do, many probably don't."

While the symbolic representation of the car remains firmly fixed in the male id, however, the imagery of persuasion has considerably softened. Perhaps this reflects a more refined masculine consciousness, perhaps some grudging concession to feminist politics. Either way, the dominant motives now eschew heavy-handed sex fantasy for a more veiled image of sexual savoir faire.

A central theme is the new advertising environment is competence. Unlike ads for the Pontiac GTO, a preponderance of ads today show the car in full gallop, often hugging a treacherous curve on a stylized highway, the driver in command. The machine in this equation is the silent partner, responsive to his demands while providing reliable pleasure in the process. In the right hands, the suggestion seems to be, a vehicle doesn't merely transport, it conquers! Even staid Volvo displays its luxury sedan plowing through a desert moonscape.

A second theme, never unspoken for long, is power. From up-scale BMW (whose "M Power" series boasts the slogan, "it's a lot like nothing else") to the archetypal Chevy truck ("Bigger, Faster, Stronger, Smarter"), these cars crave having the pedal slammed to the metal. They want to be treated rough and ridden hard. Luxury may be part of the package, but it's performance that separates the men from the boys. Even a domesticated family man overwhelmed with errands to run can unthrottle his testosterone: "Sometimes you forget the milk, sometimes you forget the bread, sometimes you forget the store altogether" shout the headlines for a five-passenger Chrysler Concorde whizzing with abandon along a coastal road.

Perhaps what's most remarkable about the current car iconography, however, is the marked absence of human beings. The high performance cars appear to be driving themselves. Even the high-end ads selling sophistication and elegance ("Park Avenue Buick, no wonder it's a big hit with the theater crowd") don't have people in the pictures. This, I suspect, is the truest and most damning indication of what happens when the popular culture surrenders a central place in its mythology to a machine. The language of symbols in such a system gradually strips away human references. When a car appropriates virtues like erotic, companionable, and trustworthy, what remains as the exclusive reserve for people anymore?

Originally published in the February/March 1999 issue of Boston Review



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