Bring a Frenchman on an American road and you can bet their decrepit bridges that he’ll be astonished by the amount of SUV’s plowing through the ”rugged” roads. It’s cultural, you’d answer back, and you’d leave it at that. Americans covet security, social status and roaring engines –there’s nothing to it. But who doesn’t? And why isn’t the whole world driving what has come to personify the American man himself: fat, polluting and brazenly selfish. The short answer: marketing genius. A genius awoken by that Frenchman and one that has the potential to kill you.
The story begins in the 1960’s. The end of the second world war ushers a new wave of globalization. Trade is soaring among the United States and Europe. Due to the increase in international competition, the European agricultural sector is taking a beating. The French government bows to the demands of an important farming constituency and subsidizes massively the poultry industry. French farmers could now produce more and flood the international market with cheaper products likes their beloved emblem, the rooster. The U.S is furious. An international trade arbiter, the GATT at the time, rules in favor of the United States and allows it to retaliate by imposing an import tax on light trucks. If the French want to unfairly protect a sector of their agriculture, it is only fair game Americans protect a sector of their jeweled automotive industry. With the dawning of the Japanese industry beating the Chryslers and the Fords to the punch, the city of Detroit, the birthplace of American cars, can only heave a sigh of relief knowing that a part of its business will not get bludgeoned by foreign competition.
This gives Detroit an incentive to produce and sell light trucks (SUVs are considered as such). The only obstacle is the knee-high market potential: construction workers, farmers, sport buffs -nothing to get excited about. The need was thus slim, but what about the desire? Comes along Edward Bernays, the nephew of Sigmund Freud and considered the father of the field of public relations and marketing. Bernays understood that people’s sub-conscious desires could be exploited to make them buy things they didn’t need. If rolled-up tobacco could be shown in the same frame with a sexy girl, you can make cigarettes desirable. It didn’t take long to associate driving a SUV with a) virility a) sex c) power. By plucking at human basic insecurities and desires, marketers began the not-so difficult task of reshaping the automobile industry around the SUV, a market protected from outside competition and thus rich in earning potential. Billions of dollars in advertizing sweet-talked the American public into associating massive and polluting cars with the ultimate symbol of status, the all-out American dream. In addition, with the cold war and later 9/11 casting a pall over their sense of security, Americans flocked to anything that closely resembled a bunker. And the Hummer was its epiphany.
Like cigarettes, the deception would be soon read in statistics. Although SUV provide a sense of security, they are nothing less than a threat to others. Regular cars have not been built to withstand collusion with such behemoths, equipped with their high-rising bumpers that bulldoze past the other car’s defenses. In an ironic vicious circle, drivers feel they need to buy an SUV to counteract the growing dangers posed by other SUV’s. A survival of the biggest even Darwin would find freakish. But not Detroit. It is all smiles.
As it happens in tempting situations, the government finds itself in bed with business. The sale of regular cars brings moderate revenues to its coffers because a good portion of them are Japanese. The sales would simply flow back to Japan. But light trucks were a bonanza: they were produced in America and there was every incentive to let Detroit expand its automobile industry and fill with tax money the government’s pockets. It thus made sure not to impose too many safety regulations fearing it would stammer the industry’s profits. The result: poorly regulated SUVs with poor construction, with high tendency to roll over during accidents. Statistically it spells an 8% higher death rate in SUV’s than in regular cars. A danger to others, a danger to yourself. But desirable.
As for the cigarette business, good marketing and government greed conspired against you. The Frenchman’s only sin, incidentally, is to have preferred French chickens over American ones. So let him enjoy the view.