Your car tells people something about you
Vehicles can show need for control of image
Larry David, co-creator of the hit TV show "Seinfeld," made millions of dollars from the show before creating his own hit HBO show, "Curb Your Enthusiasm," where he portrays himself.
"Curb Your Enthusiasm" focuses on how, despite being rich and famous, David is very much an unchanged man. He still wears old sneakers and wrinkly clothes, still has the same gripes about life and still drives a Toyota Prius.
David's wife, Laurie, is a prominent environmentalist and got David involved in environmental issues that are frequently explored on the show. For anyone who watches "Curb Your Enthusiasm" and knows David's comedy, the Prius, which is a hybrid, in many ways symbolizes the man himself -- unflashy and eco-friendly.
What we drive in many ways makes a statement about who we are. Even trying to avoid making a statement -- like David driving an affordable car despite his millions -- ends up making a statement. Sam Walton, founder of Wal-Mart, was one of the richest men in the world, but drove around the same pickup truck for 30 years.
"That is a statement that (Walton) is making. He wants everyone to know that he is one of the boys," said Charles Kenny, a psychologist who has worked with many of the major automakers trying to help them understand why consumers choose certain cars. "He's a regular guy, and just because he's made a lot of money doesn't mean that he thinks of himself as different."
One thing that Kenny said has changed over time is the connection and identity drivers get from certain brands.
Alfred P. Sloan, who served at various times as president, chairman and CEO of General Motors from 1923 through 1956, devised a hierarchy in the GM family that could serve consumers throughout their lifetime.
Chevrolet was considered the entry-level car. As consumers moved up the economic ladder, they could move up from Pontiac to Oldsmobile to Buick to Cadillac, the luxury car. That approach helped make GM one of the largest and most successful companies in the world.
But as GM lost its domination of the American market in the 1970s and '80s, other American companies rose up, along with an influx of foreign autos, and muddied the waters of brand identity.
"Today, you go from a Chevrolet to a Pontiac to a Buick, it's the same vehicle. They've just changed a few of the trinkets on it, nothing substantive," said Kenny. "And that's where the brands started to get killed."
What now seems to have replaced brand identity in the mind of the American auto buyer is the type of vehicle they drive. Kenny said drivers now identify themselves more as an SUV driver or sports car driver than they do as a Cadillac driver or a Ford driver.
"A lot of consumers, when they buy a vehicle, are less concerned about the brand than the category of vehicle," said Kenny. "They tend to make that decision first. There seems to be more emotional intensity there."
An SUV can mean that you seek adventure and exploration.
The SUV originated with the Jeep brand that was used extensively by the Allied forces in World War II. As a result, according to Kenny, the Jeep and other SUVs have come to represent the ability to go anywhere and do anything.
"My Jeep takes me places I could never go in another car, like off-roading in the desert or off-roading on mountain trails where no other cars go," said Tim Root, who lives in Los Angeles and has owned a Jeep Wrangler, Jeep Grand Cherokee and Jeep Cherokee. "No other car could go there, not even an Explorer. The only places that could make it that I've been are Jeep Wranglers. Gas prices may have risen, but my needs haven't changed."
Of course, many Jeep or SUV drivers never even take their cars off paved roads, but it is because of the endless potential of the SUV that many drivers buy them.
"It's because of the possibilities. 'I could if I want to. I could exercise that if I really wanted to or if I needed it.' It does have a very strong emotional benefit," said Kenny.
Kenny said that large SUVs like the Hummer fulfill the same emotional needs that an SUV does, but multiplied, especially for men.
"Even if they drive it just to the parking lot and don't get any mud on it, at 6 o'clock in the morning on a Saturday or Sunday it helps fulfill all of their fantasies of being a macho southern hombre who is out there hunting and fishing, doing the manly man stuff that men do," said Kenny.
The exaggerated and oversize nature of the Hummer can also lead others to think there is a level of psychological overcompensation involved with the owner.
"I've thought about this a million times driving down the highway in L.A., Chicago, New York, wherever," said comedian Rodney Hood when asked what goes through his mind when he sees a man driving a Hummer. "And I think, 'That guy probably has a girl at home that sits around all day and doesn't do a thing but try and avoid his sexual advances at all times. She's 20, he's 50, and she's trying to dodge him at all times."
Kenny said that drivers of sports cars such as the Corvette are seeking power and control, but mostly control.
"You will find that Corvette owners are more sensitive and refined than you would think. They're not into hoarding it over other people the way that the Hummer owners are," said Kenny.
The other emotional need that can be fulfilled is a desire for immortality.
"They get real upset if the paint job gets scratched. That's very upsetting to a Corvette owner. They want these things to last forever, and they want to last forever," said Kenny. "They're never going to sell it. In fact, a lot of Corvette owners, when they buy a new Corvette, they keep the other one."
Muscle cars are becoming a rarer sight on the roads. GM discontinued the Pontiac Firebird and the Chevy Camaro in 2002, although the Camaro returned in 2009.
They and the Ford Mustang have been traditionally identified as the poor man's Corvette because of their cheaper price, but Kenny said it is more complicated than that.
"The difference is that people who own those muscle cars actually do have an impulse control problem," said Kenny. "Corvette owners have it under control. They do not get speeding tickets. They do not wreck their cars. But the Camaro and Firebird owners, those people are much more likely to be weaving in and out of traffic."
Kenny said many muscle car drivers ironically buy the cars as a means to try and control their impulses.
"But you can see that it doesn't work very well. They have impulses with regard to drinking, sexuality, drugs, addiction and serial marriages," said Kenny.
Hood said he more often sees muscle cars in rural and suburban towns.
"I'm from Peoria, Ill., and when they said there was going to be no more Trans Ams, there were 38 suicides in Peoria," joked Hood. "And Paduka, Ky., had an epidemic of suicides, too."
The difference in sedan drivers is the number of doors. Four-door sedans, according to Kenny, serve a need to be practical and nurturing, while two-door sedans fulfill a need for gender identity, especially with women.
"'It doesn't fit the type of woman that I am to drive a four-door sedan,'" Kenny said many female two-door sedan drivers say to themselves. "'That's for a woman with a family to drive. I'm a single woman. After all, I'd like to meet a guy and get married someday. If I drive around a beat up four-door sedan, that's not going to happen.'"
The idea of the four-door sedan being for older or married people isn't limited to women. Hood, who worked as a car salesman before getting into comedy, said he drives around a 2000 Buick LeSabre that his father gave him.
"I am the youngest person in America to drive a Buick LeSabre, I think," said Hood, who is 39 and single. "I Googled it, and the next closest person was 117 years old, I'm almost positive. ... It'll put you to sleep. You might as well park that thing in an old folks home, sit in it and die. That's what it feels like to drive a Buick LeSabre."
Kenny said that when pickup truck makers came out with full size versions that included back seats, the identity of the pickup truck as a man's auto started to change, and middle-aged women started driving them.
"What's going on there, what they're looking for, is this is the strong woman, the independent woman who -- she may be happily married, often she is, she's not a man hater -- but she wants to feel like she can do just about all that there is to do in life and do it by herself."
Compact pickup trucks, Kenny said, are viewed by many of their owners, especially men, as an extension of themselves more than other auto owners.
"It really gives him the flexibility to be that competent male who can do things for himself, his family and his friends," said Kenny.
Kenny said that the rise of the SUV gave mothers more options of what to drive at the expense of the minivan. As a result, mothers who continue to drive minivans today tend to be practical and traditional and not bothered the message a minivan sends.
"Gradually, what sort of emerged is this stigma for some women that a minivan is a mommy's van. 'That limits me to mother. I'm not a woman, I'm just a mother,'" said Kenny. "'If I'm driving a minivan, it says that I'm a mommy, I'm a mom, I'm a mother. I'm not a wife, I'm not a woman, I'm not a lover, I'm not a friend. I'm just a mom.' It's limiting."
As a result of the stigma a minivan can carry, crossovers such as the Toyota Rav4 have become autos that mothers are more comfortable with, according to Kenny.
"I think the crossover offers women the opportunity to have the best of both worlds," said Kenny. "They can have the opportunity to fulfill their roles and yet not feel limited, not feel that people are looking at them in a narrow way and fulfill all the aspects of their gender identity."
Kenny said people purchase luxury cars for many reasons that all relate to one: the need for status.
"The need for status always comes into play when we are talking about expensive cars and brands, such as Cadillac and Lexus," said Kenny. "What is status about? It is one of the needs that comprise territorial survival, which is concerned bottom line with the following: 'I occupy territory that you do not!'"
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