Tuesday, February 03, 2004

Yellow, Black and Rectangular

A couple weeks ago, The New Yorker Magazine published an article by Malcolm Gladwell about "the S.U.V. culture" and what it says about America. You can find an online edition of it here, and I strongly recommend it to all our loyal readers.

First, he goes on at great length and with quite convincing logic about how the "Sport Utility Vehicle" category enjoys a public perception of vehicle safety that is [quite deliberately] distorted way out of line from what their engineers expected. (The space aliens in Mahogany Row, of course, didn't miss a beat capitalizing on the opportunity— and that's an important part of the story.)

Then comes the punch in the gut. Here is one of the more important paragraphs (with my emphasis added as italics —ed.)...

In psychology, there is a concept called learned helplessness, which arose from a series of animal experiments in the nineteen-sixties at the University of Pennsylvania. Dogs were restrained by a harness, so that they couldn't move, and then repeatedly subjected to a series of electrical shocks. Then the same dogs were shocked again, only this time they could easily escape by jumping over a low hurdle. But most of them didn't; they just huddled in the corner, no longer believing that there was anything they could do to influence their own fate. Learned helplessness is now thought to play a role in such phenomena as depression and the failure of battered women to leave their husbands, but one could easily apply it more widely. We live in an age, after all, that is strangely fixated on the idea of helplessness: we're fascinated by hurricanes and terrorist acts and epidemics like sars-situations in which we feel powerless to affect our own destiny. In fact, the risks posed to life and limb by forces outside our control are dwarfed by the factors we can control. Our fixation with helplessness distorts our perceptions of risk. "When you feel safe, you can be passive," Rapaille says of the fundamental appeal of the S.U.V. "Safe means I can sleep. I can give up control. I can relax. I can take off my shoes. I can listen to music." For years, we've all made fun of the middle-aged man who suddenly trades in his sedate family sedan for a shiny red sports car. That's called a midlife crisis. But at least it involves some degree of engagement with the act of driving. The man who gives up his sedate family sedan for an S.U.V. is saying something far more troubling-that he finds the demands of the road to be overwhelming. Is acting out really worse than giving up?

That's the main thesis of the article, but I'd like to draw your attention to some of the "red meat" portions of the text (in the hopes that it will make you want to go read the whole article).

Here's another bit from the article that shows you what the S.U.V. makers really think about their customers.

[...] Ford's S.U.V. designers took their cues from seeing "fashionably dressed women wearing hiking boots or even work boots while walking through expensive malls." Toyota's top marketing executive in the United States, Bradsher writes, loves to tell the story of how at a focus group in Los Angeles "an elegant woman in the group said that she needed her full-sized Lexus LX 470 to drive up over the curb and onto lawns to park at large parties in Beverly Hills." One of Ford's senior marketing executives was even blunter: "The only time those S.U.V.s are going to be off-road is when they miss the driveway at 3 a.m."

Mr. Gladwell also has a quote from a "cultural anthropologist, G. Clotaire Rapaille [of the Rapaille Institute —ed.], whose speciality is getting beyond the rational" that includes the following bit of high weirdness:

And what was the key element of safety when you were a child? It was that your mother fed you, and there was warm liquid. That's why cupholders are absolutely crucial for safety. If there is a car that has no cupholder, it is not safe. If I can put my coffee there, if I can have my food, if everything is round, if it's soft, and if I'm high, then I feel safe. It's amazing that intelligent, educated women will look at a car and the first thing they will look at is how many cupholders it has.

And then there is the bit about the Porsche Boxster vs. the Chevy Trailblazer... but you'll just have to go read the whole thing to see how that turns out.

After you do that, you should come back and post your comments here about what you think this emerging trend in popular culture means in the context of the coming U.S. Presidential election and the Global War on Iraqi Flying Saucer Technology Program Related Activities.

(Oh, and for those keeping score, the headline I used for this piece is a reference to a strangely appropriate audio recording by a local art collective here in the San Francisco bay area called Negativland. Here are the lyrics for Yellow, Black and Rectangular. Enjoy.)

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