On the End of the American Auto Industry

Blitz Magazine, March 2006

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The other day, I was sitting in a long line of traffic. I was at the top of a hill and could see all the cars below. I noticed that, out of 50 or 60 vehicles, only three were not Japanese or German. The US was represented only by a Hummer, a big lump of a Cadillac and an ancient Buick. All the rest were foreign. As I continued to drive around Vancouver that day, I kept an eye out and saw the same thing on every street, in every parking lot. Japanese, German, some Swedish. Lots of Jaguars. And everywhere, SmartCars. Nary an American vehicle in sight.

Meanwhile, the news on the radio was about how Ford and GM are on the brink, and I’m thinking “Well, duh.”

The mantra for big marketing is all about knowing consumers, knowing what they want, and giving it to them. This is nothing new. But American car-makers—who rank among the largest retailers in the world—have never done this. The American auto industry has always given consumers what it wants them to have. Consumer research may have been conducted, but it was ignored. Ditto all research into what the competition was doing. The message from American auto-makers has always been the same: “Here’s what we’ve built. Buy it.”

If I were the president of, say, General Motors, I would have looked at Great Britain, whose citizens pay some of the highest fuel prices in the world and have never wanted anything but the small and zippy. I would have seen the same thing across Europe and thought ‘Hmmm. Maybe the big car is about to do the way of the dodo.’ I would have listened to trend analysts—not American auto trend analysts, but energy trend analysts. I would have seen what the Japanese saw long ago: a growing need for smaller, more fuel-efficient cars with all of the options and comforts. I would have said to myself: ‘Look at how successful those Japanese manufacturers are. Maybe we should do the same thing.’

Well, that didn’t happen. Instead of giving consumers what they really wanted out of a vehicle—fuel-efficiency, safety, reliability etc., American car-makers said: ‘Oh forget the reality. Let’s look at consumers’ cultural aspirations, create vehicles that fit with their idealized self-images and appeal to their egos, and then market the hell out of them.’

So, at a time when roads are true danger zones, and when most couples wouldn’t dream of having more than two children, American car makers produced SUVs—gas-guzzling vehicles that everyone knows are unsafe. Then they marketed them as family essentials. At a time when drivers are increasingly distracted by cell phones and fast food, American consumers got vehicles with entertainment systems. In an era where commuting time can run up to three hours, Americans produce longer vehicles (longer vehicles increase commuting time for everyone).

Did consumers ever indicate that they wanted this? No. But the marketing worked. Until reality sunk in. Those vehicles are no longer desirable. There are millions of them out there, and no one wants them.

auto1Pick-up trucks are only needed by tradesmen. Yet we’re now seeing massive pick-up trucks driven by executives who happened to respond well to hearing Bob Seeger sing ‘Like a Rock.’ For the under-endowed, there’s the Hummer. Meanwhile, the US government is so desperate to find sources of oil that it has gone to war and is ready to plunder a northern nature preserve for a three-year supply. Chop logic.

If you look at the advertising for German cars, the emphasis is on performance and status. If you look at the advertising for Japanese cars, the emphasis is on reliability, safety, stability, comfort—and fun. If you look at the advertising for American cars, the emphasis is on all the snappy things you can fiddle with inside vans—to create toy bins and space for baby carriages. Please.

And speed—we’re still stuck with those tired old commercials showing cars driving very fast along twisting roads. Meanwhile, public tolerance for speeding is at an all-time low. Fines are way up, California drag-racers are going to jail—a Vancouver man was recently deported as a result of a fatal speed-crazed crash. Speed and recklessness are, like, totally yesterday.

The major shareholders of American auto manufacturers have never done anything to remove board members or CEOs. Now all’s lost. And you have to wait in a very long line to buy a SmartCar or a Prius; and a 2002 Toyota Echo costs $17,000—if you can find one.

Big Auto wasn’t paying attention. The lesson that everyone can learn from that is that communicators have to be smarter and make more of an effort to predict the future. We have to watch, listen and learn. We have to hear the ideas in our own heads, and listen to those of others. And we have to be better communicators.

We are in the Age of the Internet. And the Age of the Entrepreneur. Long-term success now depends on communicating, fulfilling needs, listening, providing great products and services at fair prices, and giving clients and consumers what they want and need. Otherwise, adios.

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On Automobiles, Advertising & Talking to Americans

Blitz Magazine, January 2003

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I’m sitting in traffic, in my Mustang. We’re not going anywhere and I have no idea why. Because I can’t see a thing. I am surrounded by SUVs. And I start to think about how gullible people are. We know that, in an accident, an SUV is 30% more likely to roll and 25% more likely to kill the other driver. We know that, by virtue of their size, SUVs increase traffic volume, thereby increasing the amount of time vehicles are on the road, thus the amount of fuel burned. We know that SUVs burn more fuel individually, and that they cost more to insure. Yet people keep buying them.

I prefer the European attitude toward automobiles. They’re mere appliances, made of steel and plastic and rubber and fibre. Their purpose is to get people from point A to point B, in a safe and efficient manner, with some speed and a little fun thrown in. If you look at any European street, it’s clear that people there don’t care about dents and scratches, or dust and mud. I have an English friend who drives an old Bentley. It makes strange sounds, smells of cigars and is usually full of damp dogs, but it’s fuel-efficient and there’s no point in fixing something that ain’t broke. Over there, people like nice cars, but cars are by no means the status symbols that they are on this side of the pond.

In North America, automobile advertising has people believing that, without an SUV, people might not be able to drive up mountains—as many of us so often have to. Worse, advertising has people believing that SUVs are safe, and that they’re essential for good parenting. That a huge van with a built-in entertainment system is a must for childhood happiness, or that the ability to reconfigure seating will keep kids from fighting. I spend $80 a month on gas, which is barely enough to get the average SUV-wielding soccer mom to and from Wal-Mart. In fact, the money that parents spend on these contraptions each year far exceeds the annual tuition at most private schools.

The other message being swallowed is speed. (I should admit here that speed has always been a problem for me. In fact, I flunked my first driving test by going over the speed limit.) But, in Vancouver as, I’m sure, in other cities, speed has become an increasingly deadly problem.

On the one hand, there’s a huge population of recent yuppies who are too busy to drive their teen-agers anywhere. It’s a lot easier just to buy them their own high-performance cars—and trust them. On the other hand, Vancouver has a huge population of Asian immigrants. These people work hard and prosper in their new county, and they want to give their kids (especially their sons) everything their hearts desire. And they’re new to the culture, so they’re finding their way through that culture’s media.

In both cases, if the family prize wants the newest, fastest car on the lot? No problem! ‘Course, he could end up blind, paralyzed, dead or in jail… Recently, in a Vancouver suburb, road-racing teens snuffed out the life of a 30 year-old RCMP officer. This week, the officer’s parents (also Asian immigrants) were on the news—he was their only child and the item was on how they’re working with local government to stop road racing. The broadcast then went to commercial—it was a spot from Subaru, about its newest, fastest car. It’s ‘rally-proven!’

So now the question is, how socially responsible will advertisers be forced to become? We can’t advertise tobacco. We can’t show anyone drinking liquor. There are strict rules governing promotion of those products and only hypocrites can support those rules while claiming that the Zoom Zoom Zoom commercials don’t contribute to dangerous behaviour.

Obesity is a huge problem among North America’s youth, with a thoroughly preventable disorder saddling millions of kids with diabetes and heart disease. What’s this going to do to the rules of advertising for McDonald’s? Coca Cola? Chips, pop, doughnuts? Candy, chocolate bars? Pizza? Or those fat-packed, salt-soaked pre-made meals people keep buying?

We know that one cause of obesity is a sedentary lifestyle. What’s going to happen to the marketing of video games? Computers? And now Canada has ratified the Kyoto Accord and we are committed to reducing greenhouse gases. What’s going to happen to that automobile advertising? I have no answers here—but I do know that the future of marketing is going to be very interesting.

The whole Kyoto storm was another amusement. There’s Alberta Premier Ralph Klein, touting the oil industry line that cutting greenhouse gases is going to cost thousands of jobs and all kinds of money. Meanwhile, the precious Alberta beef industry depends (duh) on climate. Following the worst drought in the memory of every farming community on the Canadian prairies (the ‘bread-basket of the world’), Alberta farmers were shipping their cows to slaughter and entering lotteries in which the prizes were rail car-loads of moldy hay.

BC Premier Gordon Campbell took the same position as Klein. But Vancouver and its environs are now legally committed to bidding on the 2010 Winter Olympics. I’m writing this on December 16th. Vancouver’s famed winter rain arrived last week—two months late. I have a garden full of flowers, and the local mountains have yet to see a snowflake. Let’s hope that Whistler/Blackcomb can make enough snow by the time the Olympic Selection Committee gets here.

In the US, it’s ‘Global warming? What global warming?’ Rising sea levels are causing the United States to physically, and rapidly, shrink. Inestimable damage is done every year by increasingly intense storms, and American farmers are no happier than Canadian farmers. Cross-border smog has created an epidemic of asthma among Ontario children; in summer, from the sky, Toronto is barely visible. There are pockets of Texas where up to 40% of the population suffers from respiratory ailments and cancer is rampant. Ah, yes, Texas. Home of the World’s Most Dangerous Man.

There’s little doubt that, when Jean Chretien’s communications director called George Bush a ‘moron’, it was one helluva PR gaff—even though she was telling the truth. But it made me recall a famous quote by Barbara Bush. It took place at a party celebrating Dubya’s first Texas gubernatorial election. Babs, not realizing that there was a journalist behind her, reportedly turned to her daughter and said: “Can you believe this?”

If a guy’s mother doesn’t think he should be in public office, he shouldn’t be in public office. But Babs raised Dubya to do what he’s told, and he’s doing it. Texas industry put him in power and the result if now evident there. American industry put him in national power and the damage is evident everywhere else. Two years of this guy and the world is a disaster. Last night, Al Gore announced that he won’t run in the next presidential election; I get the feeling that he thinks he might not be able to fix things. On the same broadcast of 60 Minutes, Donald Rumsfeld was shown telling Steve Croft that the war on Iraq has ‘Nothing to do with oil. Nothing whatsoever’.

He’s lying. And everyone knows he’s lying. Senior US cabinet officials are popping up all over the place, doing as many interviews as they possibly can, trying to sell a war that has no credible basis. It’s gone past the point of ridiculousness to the point of comedy. Every day, there are reports that UN weapons inspectors have found nothing, and that they have unfettered access to suspected sites. And, almost every day, the British or American PR machines come out with a ‘new’ piece of ‘evidence’. ‘Oh,’ they say, ‘We’ve had this evidence for years—we just didn’t tell anyone.’ Who do they think they’re kidding?

Anyway, what set me off on this tangent is a 60-minute re-run of Rick Mercer’s Talking to Americans. At one time one of the funniest concepts on TV, watching it became one depressing experience. As you’ll recall, Mercer would ask Americans to comment on outrageously stupid ideas. So we see Americans congratulating Canada on legalizing insulin and staplers, the completion of 800 miles of paved road, getting a second area code and becoming part of North America. ‘Hysterically funny.

Then a professor at Columbia University signs a petition against placing Canadian senior citizens adrift on ice floes. A professor at Harvard, after proudly proclaiming that he received tenure in 1965, agrees that Irish-Canadians should be allowed to vote. A professor at Boston College considers the merits of Canada’s honouring of its treaty with Chief Gordon Lightfoot and allowing an annual rhino hunt. A professor at Stanford concurs with the notion of sending ground troops into Saskatchewan. And the governor of Arkansas congratulates Canada on getting FM radio. And they’re all serious.

When these spots first aired, Bill Clinton was president of the United States. If the American media had been less obsessed with his sex life, the world may be in better shape today; he recently told David Letterman that all of ‘that’ definitely distracted his administration from the hunt for Osama bin Laden, which began in the early ‘90s.

There was never any doubt about Clinton’s intellect. The guy is probably a genius. And when someone that sharp is running the show, other types of ignorance can be funny.

Now, ignorance is as deadly as any other weapon. And the Leader of the Free World (shudder here) is a dimwit. His ignorance is a staple on Saturday Night Live. It is commonly discussed on the late night talk shows. It’s now mentioned by mainstream journalists, as if it’s OK. But it’s not OK. While one can occasionally see a dim flicker of understanding in those tiny little eyes, there’s little doubt that he’s not the one running show. He’s being handled. Who by? Who knows? PR experts certainly, but who are they and what agenda do they have?

 My thoughts return, again, to how gullible people are. Americans in particular. There should have been massive protest, even civil disobedience, when Bush was elected in the shadiest of shady elections. There wasn’t. Texans voted for the guy because he likes to talk tough—they love that ‘Don’t Mess With Texas’ mantra. Just a few months ago, Americans had a chance to reduce the number of Republicans in office, reduce Bush’s power and damage his chances for re-election. Yet barely 25% of them turned out to vote.

My conclusion is that North Americans have adopted the mentality of sheep. If it’s advertised, buy it. If a politician says it, it must be true. If it’s in the papers, it’s gotta’ be real. Perhaps this mentality is not new, but it’s never been more unhealthy, more damaging, or more dangerous. And what we all want—what we all absolutely need—is for everyone to start telling the truth.