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Car Commercials

image of bmw roadster

This here is the BMW Z3 Roadster. It not only satisfies your need for motion, it satisfies your need for emotion, or so the slogan goes. Soma, anyone? In a culture where what you own is is what you are, cars are sold as the ultimate statement...

Of rebellion...

Every revolution begins with a single act of defiance.
– Toyota

Live life in your own lane.
– Mercury Sable

For: Republicans
Independents checkmark
– Nissan

Set it free and it will return the favor.
– Mazda Miada

The sporty sedan that doesn’t follow the crowd.
– Mazda 626

Of utopia...

If you sold your soul in the ‘80s, here’s your chance to buy it back.
– VW Beetle

Suddenly, the world’s glass is half full again.
– VW Beetle

It not only satisfies your need for motion, it satisfies your need for emotion.
– guess who

song: "What the World Needs Now is Love, Sweet Love"
– Mercedes M Class

song: Nick Drake's "Pink Moon"
- VW Cabrio

[Nothing says utopia like the music of a kid who committed suicide at 27 by overdosing on anti-depressants.]

Of elitism...

...BMW drivers don't even have to breathe the same air as everyone else
- from an ad in the flight magazine Voyager, discussing the Beamer's new air filtration system

In a perfect world, everyone would drive a Mercedes.
- on the Mercedes Homepage, which has some amazingly hyperbolic slogans.

The only thing more nauseating than the drivel above is that most people willingly believe it. And even if you don't equate VW Bugs with Hippie Enlightenment, you might get a hotrod just to impress those who do. You may be aware of the fallacies of advertising, but you don't want to look like a chump on the 405 Freeway, do you?

Why are ads so effective, even when most people know that they're being manipulated? Are people relieved because it's simpler to buy an attitude than to cultivate one? It's easy to tell what people feel they are lacking in life by noting what commercials offer. Certian products have obvious associations - Wonderbras, designer clothes and beauty products have to make you feel that you aren't attractive enough and that their product will fix your flaws. Furniture, designer clothing and some luxury car ads must convince you that the quality and cost of the products in your living room, closet and garage mirror the quality of your life.

But most car commercials associate their vehicle with differentiating yourself from the crowd. Because our village is now global, we have six billion people to define ourselves against instead of 60 or 600. If you're a Maori or a Cherokee and you're the only basket maker or doctor in the village, your identity is secure. The ideal in most earlier societies, anyway, was to go with the group. Your were a member of a tribe and you followed their customs - not only for a sense of belonging, but for the survival of the group, which worked as a team. The word "original" used to mean the opposite of what it means today; it meant that one's work or behavior had origins, was part of a tradition. But with the individualism of the modern era (in the West, anyway), the value has shifted to works that break the mold, and so the word's meaning has shifted. Being traditional today is akin to being boring, uninventive - a conformist.

And how do you ensure that you're seen as the gazelle among the sheep? You buy a "rebellious" car, just like everyone else. You buy the rugged four-wheel drive SUV (and then drive it to the supermarket or tote around your kid's soccer team. I mean, really -- are you ever planning on using that bike rack mounted on the back?). You buy that edgy Mazda (that takes you to your office job where you sit in a cubicle that's identical to 900 other cubicles in a building that looks like every other building in Corporate America).

van gogh's irises
Van Gogh's Irises

The irony is that these commercials sell the idea of rebellion, but what they are really doing is asking you to conform - to the idea that what you drive is who you are; to the idea that you can buy rebellion; to the idea that even if 9,000 other people have the exact car you do, you're still a non-conformist. Other products peddle this idea as well (from Apple's "Think Different" to Levi's "look at me, I'm the aloof outsider" schtick), but cars are the most obvious personal statements. Especially in auto-dependent (and shallow, materialistic) cities like Los Angeles.

Speaking of materialism, the rejection of such values is another angle that some companies use, notably VW. Capitalizing on their hippie image from the '60s, VW promotes the idea that purchasing a car can actually be a Zen-like experience. Consider the slogans above... Suddenly, the world's glass is half-full again. Shopping may give some people a temporary feeling of power and satisfaction, but it usually dissipates by the time they get home and toss the Nordstrom's bags on the Ralph Lauren comforter. And my favorite, If you sold your soul in the '80s, here's your chance to buy it back. First off, if being a consumer pig during the Reagan era is how you "sold out," how can buying yet more junk redeem you? And to equate a car with your soul ("you are what you drive" at its worst) is truly insulting.

If you really want to be rebellious, if you really want to get that spiritual high, you can kill two birds with one stone. Give up your Living Room By Pottery Barn, your Wardrobe By DKNY and Abercrombie and Fitch and your Rebellion By Volkswagon. Use the extra dough to buy an inspiring work of art, some books, or a trip to Pompeii to view the wall paintings. Being fulfilled and fascinating will make you much happier than looking it. You'll end up attracting the folks that are cool from the inside out, not the outside in.