Hawking style over substance (and the woolly mammoth approach)

An urban automotive history reflection

Prepared 13 March 2009 for Prof. Steve Penfold (HIS484H1S, University of Toronto).

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An argument raised during recent seminars contended that wool was used by a mammoth automotive industry — that is, to use wool to pull over the eyes of many. For several reasons, this “wool” was a recurring mechanism means to effect a desired end: to maintain predictable order for promoting economic growth within the automotive industry (and engineering a society around the dependence on its products). While not outright subterfuge (it was plainly visible, but it took a consumer gadfly named Nader to call them on it), the degree to which creative deception was effectively used was significant — especially after World War II. This deception veiled problems with vehicle safety. It devised forecasted consumption cycles. It also reinforced a social conservatism in ways which would help to preserve that consistency.

Wool in merchandising

As our seminar discussed in detail, automakers had long used a wool of advertising and styling enticements to attract, lure, and even distract consumers into buying the latest wares they hawked (even if these were half-baked leftovers from previous model years). Alfred P. Sloan’s system of planned obsolescence and selling graduated lines of mechanically similar cars to complement one another were once novel ideas, but these had long since caught on at Ford, Chrysler, Packard and elsewhere: marques like Mercury, Dodge, and Clipper were created, respectively, to appeal to different target markets and maintain buyer loyalty as returning buyers came back to look at Lincolns and Imperials. This merchandising scheme was meant to assure a long-term revenue stability by locking into a steady, loyal user base.

What was surprising was that something beyond climbing the prestige ladder was needed to lure that loyalty in the first place: the quest for mass, quantity, and power (Gartman 1994: 153; Dummitt 2007: 130). Gartman (1994: 153) explained how the growth (in girth) of cars during the 1950s was a reflection of the working class’s demand for “cars that aped the size, power, and look of those driven by their bosses” (especially evident in the “wide body” magazine ads from the ’50s and ’60s). I disagree with Gartman’s case that the increase in sales was related to “pent-up demand” (which sounds like a Viagra moment when it was evident that an emerging modern urban form pressed new mobility into service).

Rather, the root of this working class desire was exploited by a promise of “earned” prosperity. I also argue a consumptive entitlement which the working class was experiencing for the first time in a Levittown age of cheap tract housing on expansive land, modern appliances, and the belief that material luxuries were indicative of moving socially upward — when in practice they were galvanizing the demand to require the working class to produce more of these products, much as Henry Ford first pioneered (Gartman 2004: “Triumph” ¶1).

For automakers, this catering to size, excess trimming, and use of hyperbolic, meaningless neologisms was perfectly fine so long as they could sell more units and perpetuate growth at nominal expense to their own bottom line. To further this, the variety of superficial styling differences with each model year became more exaggerated, and a competition of ostentatiousness raged in such accoutrements as bigger tail fins, more chrome cladding, a laundry list of superfluous “luxury” options, and more engine power (Gartman 1994: 166, 167). Underneath, the cars were changing far less frequently.

I also disagree with Gartman that this “Earlism” trend was less reflective of a deliberate obfuscation of manufacturing labour conditions (though the same cannot be said of product safety) than it was a response to consumer demand. Consumers revered modern features which let them believe they were acquiring and expressing a newfound “freedom” from material deprivation, stemming from a sense of prosperity delivered by the war machines and emerging technologies of World War II.

By “Earlism”, I mean to say what Nickles called (2002: 583) a “democratization of taste”, but here it applies to the tastes of a mass-consuming, working-class audience. After all, many consumers worked outside of factories (and this was especially so outside the manufacturing rust belt where other industries prospered), but they saw how the sleek design and power of fighter planes — a mode of transport unheard of just a half-century before — delivered the bombs (and the Bomb) which secured their new sense of optimism and freedom in an “upwardly mobile” world (Lee 1998: 392). An equally modern (and more accessible) transport mode, the automobile, offered a platform upon which these admired qualities could be realized and possessed by consumers as souvenirs of their newfound prosperity. It could also help explain why car designs from outside of North America were decidedly more understated, even austere: “upward mobility” was not a priority for motorists elsewhere.

By marketing so many options and styling excesses, the “Earlist” tack killed many birds with one stone. It kept manufacturing costs controlled, since underpinnings of older mechanicals were concealed with superficial annual styling changes. Earlism advanced newness as a hot commodity and a fashionable possession by a lower class of consumers newly disposed with higher wages and easier access to credit —both a means to buy into this newness. Ralph Nader found it also masked an intent to neglect safety in these manufactured goods in lieu of saving a few dollars per unit. Through a causative rationale defence, he argued that this automotive strategy endangered the lives of consumers who bought these products on a basis of aesthetics or pleasure (over quality or safety) (Lee 1998: 393).

Earlism was not an exclusive domain for automobiles, but I contend that it brought into practice a trend which spilled to other products (e.g., kitchen appliances, cheap furniture sold on TV, and even toys like the lawn darts branded as Jarts). Earlism continues to drive an intense variety and customization in consumer culture, obfuscating realities like resource depletion; greenhouse gas output; invasive connections between personal identity and what one consumes to define that identity; and even product safety. Apple’s Jonathan Ive would be the closest to a present-day Earl. The latest digital camera is fashionable, but film cameras from 1959 still yield higher-quality images. My hand-me-down iPod (five generations obsolete) and my 1989 Sony Discman CD player both play music just fine. They just make me look like a dork to be seen with either. But I’m not a target market.

Wool in advertising

Volkswagen came along and, using Bernbach’s antithetical advertising tack (a strategy which taught me so much as I spent my own decade in advertising), upended the wool-pulling — a pissing contest of the Big Three car ads — by calling them on what they were: a dog-and-pony show exercise of blowing hot air up people’s netherlands and pressing them to believe that “the patent absurdities of affluence” actually meant something exclusive, vaunted, and distinguished as a way to broadcast one’s purported social class (Frank 1997: 68).

The DDB ad agency’s mockery largely succeeded. Again, one day’s revolution is a latter-day’s evolution, and his style of advertising for the VW Beetle became a template now familiar everywhere: a deliberate use of self-effacing irony; an articulation of cultural code to wink at audiences in the know; and an ongoing post-modernist commentary. As the Detwyler collection of print ads in our readings revealed, the Big Three so seldom got the joke, even into the present. Less funny, however, was how their ads drew attention away from vehicle safety, or boasted one “safety feature” at the expense of another. Advertising seat belts in a muscle car whose brakes and steering were ill-matched to the zillion horsepower jammed under the hood was an inexcusable cognitive dissonance.

Eventually, jabs by Bernbach and greater consumer awareness by Nader chipped away at the unchallenged authority of the Big Three’s marketing and merchandising of cost-cutting and skimping on quality. Nevertheless, these changes move along incrementally. While it might be possible to say that Bernbach and Nader changed the rules of how cars were marketed and sold, few have been able to effectively evince a case that thousands of lives could be saved if people curtailed the personal usage of cars entirely.