Escape, Evasion, and Survival: The SUV Ideology

I wrote this piece almost fifteen years ago, near the beginning of the SUV craze. It was never published, although Thomas Frank at The Baffler said some nice things about it while turning it down. I was prompted to dig it up after seeing a new advertising campaign for Mercedes Benz SUVs echoing the themes I had described back then.

Escape, Evasion, and Survival

J. C. Myers

In the twenty year span from the late 1960s to the late 1980s, the vehicle of choice for the middle-class American family was the station wagon. Long and low, with a powerful engine under the hood – but unquestionably not a sports car. The defining feature of the station wagon was its carrying capacity: husband, wife, two kids, and limitless bags of groceries could be packed into the thing. With one of its back seats folded down, only a full-fledged panel van was capable of hauling a greater quantity of family materiel. Yet for all its fantastic trucking ability, the station wagon (and herein lay its true appeal) remained a car. It drove like a car, rode on standard size wheels and tires; it claimed no special abilities for itself apart from its capacious backend and convenient rear hatch.

The supermarket parking lots were full of station wagons back then, and this is perhaps the first indication we have that something has changed. We all know what’s out there now. Tall, square-shouldered, boxy; riding on off-road tires, with names like ‘Navigator’, ‘Trooper’, and ‘Blazer’. Nearly half of all new car buyers now come home driving Sport Utility Vehicles (SUVs), whose primary selling point would seem to be that they are decidedly not cars. Ask an SUV owner what’s so special about his or her machine and you are likely to hear that it ‘rides up above the rest of the traffic’ and ‘can handle anything’. This is certainly the manner in which the SUV is offered up to the buying public. Prime-time TV spots and print ads in posh magazines depict the beasts as nothing less than evolutionary successors to the sedans and hatchbacks left scuttling pathetically through the underbrush. Equipped with powers and abilities far beyond those of mere mortal vehicles, the SUV declares itself to be specially suited to the rigors of modern life. Which is to say, then, that the SUV – or at least the appeal of the SUV – holds an indication of something distinctive about our time; some palpable difference between the station wagon era and our own.

It is a strange vision of the modern world, though. In the ‘40s and ‘50s, the cars of the future were imagined as sleek, streamlined machines designed as much for the air as for the road. And for its part, the sedan didn’t let Buck Rogers down. Every model year, the Ford Tauruses and Honda Accords have a few more rough edges polished down, sail through the wind tunnel with a decimal point or two less resistance. Efficiency is still a selling point here, as is comfort; maybe even grace, elegance. But these are not the vehicles that are backordered at the dealership; the ones that fly off the lot as fast as the long-haul transports can bring them in. The hot sellers – the really hot sellers, the 44% of all new car sales – are decidedly unaerodynamic. Nasty, brutish, and squat, the SUV is designed neither for commuting efficiency nor as just a better means of getting kids and groceries to their rightful places. At least (and this is a point that will need repeating) this is not the imagery with which they are sold.

A Little Security

The advertising campaigns for SUVs display a remarkable amount of thematic consistency across make and model lines. Most SUV ads, in fact, can be sorted quite easily into two broad categories. The first of these master narratives is access to the outdoors. “What big tires you have, grandma.” “Why, the better to stray from the beaten path with, my dear.” Chrysler, among others, shows its Jeep Cherokee cruising along otherwise impassable rocky trails and scaling near-vertical inclines. Beautiful scenery to catch the eye? To be sure. But more lurks in the forest than buena vistas. An Isuzu television ad, for example, presents us with an SUV parked in a placid, nighttime back-country clearing; its owners staring up at the stars. Not something one can readily enjoy in the glare of the street-lit city and thus the ad’s tag line, “Go places the power company can’t find.”[1] The outdoors, here, is not simply the outdoors. It is not a positive-valenced place of its own, it is the negative image of the city. It is escape from the city; from where – in reality – the vast majority SUV drivers live out their days.

Cut along similar lines, a print ad for the luxurious Lincoln Navigator[2] pictures the craft roaming high above the clouds on a mountain peak; calm, collected couple at the helm. But here the print text offers us a bit more in the way of an insight into the appeal – one might say, the ideology – of the SUV. The tag line is short, punchy, yet instructive: “Ditch the Joneses”.[3] The ad’s copy offers more revelation:

Although there’s something to be said for getting ahead, the new Navigator has more to do with getting away. And taking life’s luxuries with you. With up to 8,000 lbs. of towing capacity and a 5.4 liter V-8 to escape civilization.[4]

‘Keeping up with the Joneses’, of course, was the battle-cry of the post-war American middle class. In a market flush with cheap consumer durables and long-term high-wage employment available for the asking, what else was there to do but race the neighbors to see who could stack the highest pile of luxury goods? There are many ways in which this image no longer resonates with the reality of advanced capitalism, even for the more privileged members of its petit bourgeoisie. ‘Ditching the Joneses’, however, doesn’t exactly suggest a mutual cessation of hostilities. No, the battle has been won; the Joneses will never be able to keep up with this. And once the next door rivals have been vanquished, once you’ve gotten ahead, then what? It’s not a rhetorical question – the answer is clear: escape. Take what you have managed to accumulate and get out.

The ‘escape from civilization’ imagery recurs in several other SUV ads, but the object being escaped from becomes increasingly clear. Let us examine first a Honda television spot notable for its computer-animated ‘morphing’ effects. Standing on a city street, outside a Honda dealership display window, a man dressed in a sharp, gray business suit carrying a cellular phone is admiring the company’s latest SUV.[5] As he stares at the vehicle, he begins to transform: his clean shaven face sprouts a full, brushy beard; his neat haircut grows to shoulder-length; his suit turns to a red flannel shirt, jeans, and hiking boots. He drops the cellular phone into a garbage bin and walks off as the next gray-suited businessman is transfixed by the SUV. Like the couple ditching the Joneses, this is an escape from the urban environment into the outdoors. City clothes change into woodsman-wear, shiny black cap-toes become strong, brown boots. But it is also, interestingly, an escape from work. The cellular phone, we can note, does not undergo a transformation into some equally useful tool for a jaunt into the woods – it is abandoned altogether; tossed into the trash at the ad’s emotional climax.

Virtually the same imagery is repeated in an ad for a Toyota SUV. Here, another besuited, briefcase-bearing businessman stands on a crowded, gray street corner, identifiable as somewhere in the New York financial district. Standing at the traffic light is the SUV, a mountain bike and canoe strapped to the roof. Spotting the vehicle, our businessman’s thoughts are heard aloud: “Man! Where’s he going? Mountains? River? Both? It’s Tuesday. People work on Tuesday.” The SUV driver’s personal rebellion against the working world is sealed with the tag-line, “Make your own rules.”[6]

Yet another ‘escape from work’ ad was run by Isuzu night after night in prime time during the last years of the 1990s. Here, an SUV flees across a dream-like landscape, pursued by the corporate CEO as storybook giant: a towering menace, but fat, balding, and dressed in a three-piece suit. Like a petulant child trying to trap a frightened animal, the boss-giant smashes down obstacles in the path of the fleeing SUV – all of which the intrepid vehicle avoids, swerving and cornering deftly at high speed. Finally cutting a sharp corner around a chain-link barrier, the SUV makes its escape while the gargantuan CEO trips, tumbling to his death Jack and the Beanstalk style. The boss now gone to that 18th tee in the sky, our hero-vehicle rolls off, into the pastoral beauty of nature. But instead of a ‘happily ever after’, Isuzu’s fairytale ends with a bit of adolescent contempt for authority: “The world is filled with obstacles, boundaries, limits…ignore them.”[7]

Like the Toyota and Honda spots, the Isuzu ad tries to hook the potential buyer with the dream of playing hooky. “Skip that boring old meeting and we’ll go ride our mountain bikes in the woods,” the two-ton temptress whispers. But compared to these, and to Isuzu’s ‘Gazing at the Stars’ ad, the imagery in this two-minute vignette is notably violent. The SUV in ‘Boss-Giant’ is not just slipping out through the early morning traffic to dip the canoe in a river, it is fleeing for its life – swerving around obstacles, outrunning the attacker, protecting its occupants from the oncoming assault. Here, then, is the other master narrative with which SUVs are sold: the provision of security; the ability to survive. A long-running Chevy Blazer ad fitting neatly into this category shows the vehicle driving down a rain-slicked highway, swerving desperately to avoid boulders tumbling down a mountainside and logs rolling off a skidding, out-of-control truck. Having survived the terrors of the freeway – bad weather, landslides, other drivers – the Blazer pulls off-road (again, a hint of the flight from civilization) and into the driveway of a suburban home. A woman gets out and sedately checks her mailbox while the tag line is read, “A little security in an insecure world.”[8]

This is a striking statement to make about the world in which American consumers well-off enough to afford a new SUV live, yet it pales in comparison to the vision of contemporary life in a Lexus print ad. Centered in the photo is the Lexus SUV, parked in the driveway of a stereotypical suburban home.[9] Parked in the driveway of the home next-door, and in every driveway down the block is an olive drab military tank. “As rugged as any other SUV on the block,” the text reads, “it just rides a whole lot smoother.” The suburban neighborhood, once filled with family station wagons, has somehow become the Battle of Kursk. Drive the kids to soccer practice in a fuel-efficient hatchback? You must be joking. Nothing short of a Sherman 76 is up to that job. Lexus may have the reputation of a luxury car maker, but in this advertisement the order of priorities is clear: a smooth ride is an added nicety; the ability to survive in a hostile environment makes the SUV what it is.

Surely, though, rugged durability and good handling in an emergency are universal selling points rather than some suspicious new twist of automobile advertising text. Volvos have sold for years to stoic, sensible, upper-Midwesterners perfectly content to trade sleek body lines for a little more in the way of crash protection. Perhaps the sudden rush for four-wheel drive is nothing but the late realization of a good thing – traction for the spring rain and the winter snow. Perhaps. But what seems a bit suspicious still is that fact that the vast majority of SUVs are available in standard configuration with two-wheel drive. The Isuzu Rodeo, the Honda Passport, the Chevy Blazer, and the Lincoln Navigator, among others, all come standard with a drive-train that will grip the road no better than an average mid-sized sedan. True four-wheel drive (rather than just the appearance of off-road capability in the big tires and chunky lines) is an option.

As for performance in an emergency – braking or quick handling – these are not optional capabilities. They can’t be had on an SUV at any price. One look at the design of most SUVs ought to be enough to convince anyone who stayed awake for at least a few minutes of High School physics that cornering and braking at speed are not tasks these machines will take to well. And according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) such an educated guess would be correct. SUVs are big and heavy, and correspondingly take much longer to stop in an emergency than smaller, lighter sedans.[10] The real problem, though, for those SUVs depicted in the ads swerving and weaving deftly around obstacles is that the big beasts seem to have a problem keeping the rubber-side on the road. NHTSA statistics show that SUVs have the highest rate of fatal rollover crashes among all private passenger vehicles. In 1996, thirty percent of all passenger car and light truck fatalities were caused by rollovers. But the largest single proportion of that figure – thirty-seven percent – is made up by SUVs. In the agency’s own words, “The difference in rollover propensity is due to handling and stability factors and the manner in which the vehicles are driven.”[11] In March 1999, the NHTSA began requiring new SUVs to be sold with a yellow and black warning sticker bearing the following legend:

WARNING: HIGHER ROLLOVER RISK

AVOID ABRUPT MANEUVERS AND EXCESSIVE SPEED

The SUV’s defensive capabilities, then, leave something to be desired. Where the SUV shines, though, according to the official statistics, is in its offensive capability. Out on the open road, when SUV meets sedan or hatchback in a tête-à-tête, the car’s driver is thirty percent more likely than the driver of the SUV to be taking his or her next trip in a hearse.[12] Far more interesting, though, than this cold, dead statistic is the realization that this knowledge – the knowledge of the SUV as highway weapon, sedan killer – is not lost on the manufacturers or their customers. How else are we to read Lexus’ image of the SUV as suburban tank? How else to explain the fact, also pointed out by the NHTSA, that SUVs are statistically associated with aggressive driving?[13] SUVs are marketed and sold as combat-ready, armored personnel carriers for the daily commute, and their drivers are getting the message: gun that engine and take no guff, roll right over whatever gets in your way. To be sure, this is not your father’s station wagon.

The Interpretation of Desire

How are we to explain the sudden popularity of the SUV, despite the glaring contradictions between its advertising and its actual performance? An obvious answer might be the long-standing charge laid by consumer advocates that the real purpose of advertising is to manufacture false needs. No one really needs sixteen different types of breath mints, thousands of shades of nail polish, or a razor with three blades and a pivoting head. Nor does anyone who regularly drives city streets and suburban highways between home, office, school, and shopping mall really need a vehicle outfitted for the Paris-Dakar overland rally. It is the job of advertising to make us think that we need such things, and according to the critics who make this case, it is a job that sophisticated, modern advertising agencies perform remarkably well. Needless to say, advertisers and their theoreticians deny that they do any such thing. Routine blather about the sweet innocence of commerce? Perhaps. But as it turns out, the advertiser’s defense is stronger – and more revealing – than we might expect.

Walking across a shopping center parking lot, I once encountered a gregarious man wielding a clipboard who asked me if I would participate in a survey. I agreed and was asked three questions: What are your goals in life? What do people fear the most? What would the world be like if the source of that fear was resolved? I gave my answers and then asked a question of my own: What was the survey for? It was to provide the basic data for a new advertising campaign. Advertising theorists are perfectly willing to admit that the central task of their enterprise is persuasion. The proffering of useful information about products and services? “The information given by advertisements is generally only incidental to their main purpose, persuasion,” reads a standard textbook on the subject.[14] But what sort of message, what type of imagery is capable of persuading? Not just any image, not just a random message repeated a sufficient number of times, commercial break after commercial break. The man with the clipboard was collecting his data of hopes and fears, to be coded, sorted, and graphed, because the persuasive image must in some way be a resonant image. It must speak to some desire already held deep within.

Go down to the local library, pull a volume on advertising theory from the shelf, and what you will find in your hands is a textbook on human psychology: ‘Tension and Disequilibrium’, ‘Eight Basic Motives of Human Behavior’, ‘Repression, Sublimation, Compensation, and Rationalization’. These are what advertisers stake their careers and trophy partners on, and nothing less. The slick manufacture of false needs? The ad theorists themselves are nowhere near so confident. Advertising, they will tell you, is a process of communication like any other – it involves a source, a message, and a receiver. But this simple communications schematic overlooks what we tend to take for granted in everyday life:

Even in direct or personal communication, the source or sender must be capable of transmitting signals that the receiver is able to receive. There is obviously little or no communication if the students in the back of the room cannot hear the instructor’s voice. But it is not enough for the receiver to be able to see or hear the message. His reception must be psychological as well as physical; he must be able to understand what he sees or hears.[15]

Every message sent and received – if it is not to be a dead signal, lost in the air – must be enmeshed in the underlying fabric of a common field of experience. What, then, are the basic elements of advertising as a form of mass communication? Ask and ye shall be told:

  1. It must be designed and delivered so as to gain the attention of the receiver.
  2. It must use signals that are understood in the same way by both source and receiver.
  3. It must arouse needs in the receiver and suggest some way of satisfying these needs.
  4. It must suggest a way of satisfying these needs which is appropriate to the group situation in which the receiver finds himself when he is moved to make the response desired.[16]

Wright and Warner grind this down to a simple adman’s maxim, ‘know your audience’. Don’t speak to the members of the Eastlake Garden Club the same way you would a classroom of graduate students in marketing.[17] But there is more involved than just a common language, mutually understood signifiers. Our ad theorists’ four basic principles of mass communication begin to breach the boundaries of communication in general and to approach what is specific about advertising as mass communication: the arousal of need and the suggestion of satisfaction.

‘Arousal’ and ‘suggestion’, though, are suspect terms, and Wright and Warner are quite aware of our suspicions. Their textbook opens with a tangibly defensive rationalization of advertising’s persuasive function:

Why the fundamental importance of the element of persuasion is so frequently ignored in any academic concept of modern advertising is an interesting question. Apparently it is quite acceptable to suggest that advertising is some sort of inanimate force that accelerates the distribution of goods and services, but to declare openly that advertising aims to persuade people toward an action or an attitude is to label it unethical, irrational, and antisocial…Persuasion is the essence of a democratic society.[18]

The heart of their defense, though, is by no means an ethical one. It is practical to the core. Advertising cannot create consumer demand, it can only invoke it. Demand, the ad theorists teach, is rooted in fundamental physical, social, and psychological conditions. No ad campaign, no matter how clever or aggressive, could sell riding mowers to Manhattanites.

At this point, objections will be raised. This is a lovely rationalization to sell to that classroom of students in marketing, something they can use on their sneering adolescent siblings at home, but it won’t wash with any bona fide social critic. The purpose of advertising goes far beyond a benign sort of democratic persuasion. All one need do to reveal the hidden hands at work is to pull one of the more offending pieces of text out of its time and place. Dislocate it a bit and it deconstructs itself. David Hawkes does just this in a recent book, reproducing a few rather embarrassing examples of the fabrication of need:

Listerine (1923)

Edna’s case was a pathetic one. Like every woman, her primary ambition was to marry. Most of the girls of her set were married – or about to be. Yet not one possessed more grace or charm or loveliness than she.

And as her birthdays crept gradually toward that tragic thirty-mark, marriage seemed farther from her life than ever.

She was often a bridesmaid but never a bride.

That’s the insidious thing about halitosis (unpleasant breath). You, yourself, rarely know when you have it. And even your closest friends won’t tell you.

Lucky Strike Cigarettes (1929)

Instead of eating between meals…instead of fattening sweets…beautiful women keep youthful slenderness these days by smoking Luckies. The smartest and loveliest women of the modern stage take this means of keeping slender…when others nibble fattening sweets, they light a Lucky!

That’s why there’s real health in Lucky Strike. That’s way folks say: ‘It’s good to smoke Luckies.’

They know that Luckies steady their nerves and do not harm their physical condition. They know that lucky Strike is the favorite cigarette of many prominent athletes, who must keep in good shape…[19]

Prima facie evidence, Hawkes argues, “that these extremely successful advertisements deliberately inculcate certain modes of thought and behavior, that they do so by creating or consolidating artificial insecurities and prejudices, that they do this for their own profit, and that the net result is harmful and destructive both to the individual and to society as a whole.”[20]

Hawkes is certainly correct in much of his assessment. Advertisements are indeed ideological mechanisms designed to work upon the consciousness, and by no means with the most benign or beneficent of intentions. But there is a considerable distance between ‘creating’ and ‘consolidating’ insecurities, needs, and desires. To begin to get at precisely how those ideological mechanisms operate, let us take a closer look at Hawkes’ examples. Just how ‘artificial’, for example, is the desire to be desirable? To be healthy, attractive, and socially accepted? Are such needs ‘constructed’? To be sure. No primordial human instinct can possibly tell us that we are unfit beings if not married by the age of thirty. But could such an insecurity, such a prejudice, such an ideology be constructed by advertising alone? Surely not. What is taking place in the ads Hawkes cites – and in most if not all advertising – is not the creation of artificial needs, but the interpretation of needs; the manifestation of desires. Listen to another standard text on advertising theory:

When a person is already clearly conscious of some need or want, and a product exists which will satisfy that need or want, it requires very little in the way of advertising to persuade the person to buy. Under such conditions, about all an advertisement needs is an announcement of the product’s existence, its price, and where it can be bought. Such advertising, however, will be highly persuasive. When consumers are not conscious of specific needs or wants or when the qualities of a product are not clearly observable, it then becomes the task of advertising to interpret the hidden qualities of the product in terms of basic human desires.[21]

The role of the unconscious here is crucial. If this is the resting place of deep, basic, primal desires – latent desires, we might say – then such needs and desires will require some mechanism outside themselves through which to become real and apparent in consciousness. They must be made manifest. The implication for our purposes here is that the manifest form of a pre-existing desire need not be identical with its latent form. The image of the product must resonate with some unspoken need; cause it to become manifest in consciousness in the form of the product itself. The product, properly costumed and brought to the stage, will appear as what we were silently searching for all along. Yet the need has now changed its form. I may have a latent need to be accepted and loved. But if that latent need can be interpreted and manifested as the need to have minty breath, I might suddenly develop a keen interest in getting my hands on a bottle of Listerine.

Clearly a profitable enterprise for those in the ad business. But what other uses might we put this knowledge to? If at least some advertising imagery is in fact the making manifest of latent needs and desires, it should be possible for us to read in the advertiser’s image the true nature of the hidden desires being appealed to. This in turn might allow us clarify and consolidate some of what we may only suspect to be true about the conditions of contemporary life. Advertising, properly interpreted, becomes a window into society’s soul.

SUVs on the Couch

Nearly all SUV advertising involves imagery of ‘the outdoors’: mountain trails, lush forest – far from the beaten track, not to mention the paved roads. Which might be in no way suspicious if in fact most consumers of SUVs bought them primarily for camping trips in the backwoods. A quick glance at the morning commute traffic or the parking lot at the Wal-Mart tells us that this is not the case. Advertisements for toilet bowl cleansers depict their products in bathrooms rather than, say, grand ballrooms, so why are SUVs shown roaming the open countryside when the vast majority of their owners will journey nowhere more exotic or primeval than the outlet mall?

Honda, Toyota, and Isuzu have already let slip a piece of the answer. The manifest imagery in their ads consistently relates ‘the outdoors’ to an escape from work – specifically, we might add, white-collar work. It is the business suit and the cellular phone that are traded in for a flannel shirt and an SUV in Honda’s ad; the Wall Street middle-manager who stands on the corner transfixed, seeing in the Toyota 4-Runner a way to ‘make his own rules’. The appeal, of course, is directed at those doing well enough in the disjointed late ‘90s economy to afford a $30-50,000 vehicle. And this common demographic targeting should buttress our initial generalization about the imagery in SUV ads: work is coded as ‘the city’; ‘the outdoors’, then is not to be read as ‘not the city’ but as ‘not work’. Isuzu’s seemingly innocent ‘go places the power company can’t find’ spot employs the same symbolic references as its ‘boss-giant’ ad, but in a more subtle and delicate form. If the power company can’t find you, surely the boss can’t find you either. Yet, what is on offer here is not a vacation package, but the ability to escape – as if all that was required to get away from the boss and the office was the right piece of equipment. The obvious irony is that really escaping from a high-stress, high-wage, white-collar job after having purchased a new SUV would mean having to dodge the repo man rather than the boss.

An escape fantasy, then, is not the same as a desire to escape. Refugees fleeing an advancing army genuinely want to escape and take whatever actions are in their power to do so. By contrast, the escape fantasy is driven by the knowledge that escaping from unpleasant circumstances is entirely possible, though not without the rise of more weighty consequences. Nothing stops the sales managers and web-page designers from ditching their briefcases and cellphones in a dumpster and heading off into the woods, except for the sure knowledge that unpaid bills, eviction, and poverty will shortly follow. Thus, if the manifest content of SUV ad escape images is the flight from work, their latent content – the underlying emotion they seek to make manifest – is the fear of unemployment and poverty.

The 1990s were boom years for the American economy, but the boom was strikingly uneven and fragile. From 1992 onward, GDP grew at a steady rate of between 2-3% per annum. Corporate profits surged. In 1985 US corporations made $133 billion in profits after tax. In 1990 the figure rose to $231 billion and by 1995 after tax profits amounted to $382 billion. But if there was plenty of money sloshing around in the system, it was doing anything but trickling down. If American families are divided into fifths according to income, in 1974 the richest fifth received 41% of aggregate national income, while the poorest fifth received 5.5%. By 1984 the top fifth was receiving 42.9% of aggregate income and the bottom fifth 4.7%. In 1994 the highest fifth’s share of national income was up to 46.9% and the lowest fifth’s down to 4.2%.[22] The gini ratio[23] for household incomes shows the same pattern. In 1968 the gini ratio for American households stood at 0.388. After a bit of back and forth in the 1970s, it grew to 0.427 in 1988 and continued to grow steadily through the 1990s, reaching 0.456 in 1998.[24] A report by the Census Bureau argues that even accounting for various changes in data collection measures, the trend since the late 1960s is clear: the rich got richer and the poor got poorer.[25] As for the vaunted American middle-class, the upper end saw slight gains in their share of national income during the 1980s before losing ground in the 1990s, while the lower end saw their position stagnate and erode.[26] In short, it was a good time to be at the top of American society and a bad time to be anywhere else.

In the economy of the 1990s, however, it became increasingly difficult to predict where one might be from month to month and year to year. Despite positive growth and profitability, American firms (including those in the booming high-tech sector) regularly announced mass layoffs. In the first six months of 1998 alone, twenty-one US high-tech firms laid off over 121,000 workers.[27] Along with the shift toward part-time and temporary labor, the hiring and firing of staff based on highly contingent requirements became a broadly accepted practice in Silicon Valley and elsewhere. For many high-tech firms, a new product or a new production technology now means a new labor force – younger and cheaper than the old one. Mergers also contributed to the number of layoffs as firms sought to ‘realize value’ through acquisitions and downsizing. But in some cases, US corporations cut jobs simply as a means of boosting year-end profit figures to keep share values high on the stock market.[28] Little wonder, then, that among the fastest growing occupations in the 1990s were bill and account collectors.[29] Little wonder, too, that the permanent anxiety produced by such conditions could fuel fantasies of careless freedom; flight into the Great Outdoors.

Yet, in our second category of SUV ads – those encoded not by ‘escape’ but by ‘survival’ – the outside world is precisely what must be guarded against. It is not to be escaped to but escaped from. Chevy’s Blazer ad portrays the outside as an uncontrollable, unpredictable environment (weather, traffic), while Isuzu playfully (though not at all sarcastically) suggests pursuit by an assailant. The manifest content of these images is patent: an enormous, powerful vehicle offers you a measure of security in an otherwise insecure world. But the Lexus ‘driveway tank’ ad – the most stark and evocative of the bunch – betrays a clue to the latent content of the survival imagery. The driveway of a suburban home is, like the home itself, a private space. What we expect to find parked in a suburban driveway is a private vehicle, which under normal circumstances a tank is not. Tanks are public vehicles, in the sense that they are owned and controlled by the state. Whatever security they provide, either for their occupants or for the people they might defend against aggression, is provided by the state; it is a public good. What kind of world is it, then, in which every household on a normal suburban block requires its own armored military vehicle? It is the Hobbesian state of nature. It is a world not only ‘insecure’, but in which security has been privatized and individuated; turned from a public good to a market commodity.

Advertising theorists will happily tell you that most ad campaigns are keyed to basic needs: hunger, sexual desire, safety. But as late as the early 1970s, advertising theory still tended to define the type of safety to which advertisers might appeal as applying to things like health and income.[30] Physical safety – defense from external threat – was something obtained not as a consumer in the market but as a citizen of the state. That there has been a pervasive and tangible shift in the provision of physical security is apparent in the fact that, like bill and account collectors, private security guards now represent one of the fastest growing forms of employment.[31] The provision of physical security is now a $2 billion dollar industry in the US, growing at 8 percent per annum, and shows no signs of weakening. Yet, as the industry itself acknowledges, its growth is not based on rising crime.[32] Since the beginning of the 1990s, the US has seen a steady decrease in the rate of crime and while analysts could go at one another hammer and tongs over how much or how little the private security industry has contributed to the drop in crime, the phenomenal growth of the industry represents a transfer of responsibility for physical safety from the state to the individual – and, more specifically, to the individual as consumer. The security industry’s professional association is not shy on this point. “Of the universe of protection needs,” they write, “only a few are met by the police; the rest are the job of the security industry.”[33]

The American state, of course, is no smaller than it was thirty years ago nor have its coercive resources have been withdrawn from the field. In the 1990s the US put more police officers on the streets than in previous decades, built more prisons, and filled them with more prisoners. In any objective sense, the average American citizen should have felt safer in 1998 than in 1978. But in 1978 it was possible for as keen an observer as Ira Katznelson to write:

It is impossible to imagine that any capitalist democracy may achieve stability and continuity without systematic and expanding uses by the state of the main elements of the social democratic policy agenda.[34]

Later that year, President Carter and a Democratic majority Congress froze social welfare spending opening the Reagan Revolution two years early.[35] In 1996 President Clinton finished the job by eliminating the cornerstone of the American welfare system, Aid to Families with Dependent Children, and signing into law the Personal Responsibility Act. Gone was any guarantee of a minimum income below which an American citizen could not fall; in its place was now a minimal patchwork of training and work programs, focusing heavily on employment in the private sector. Thus, in the 1990s it was not the watchful Leviathan that was slipping away but the welfare state. And fading with it was the sense, the day-to-day feeling, that society was anything more than an accident.

This is what lies behind the SUV’s appeal. Off-road appearance and ill-distributed bulk are poorly suited to urban commuting and daily errands. They are perfectly suited to fantasies of escape and survival. Mass advertising might shove down our throats what we really do not want; bombard us with the unwelcome until we internalize and accept it. But this would be not be efficient. Far better, really, to draw out of us the unspoken longings, the desires that do not yet have a name. In the imagery of the SUV is just such an unnamed desire. It is, perhaps, our first taste of ideology after the welfare state.


[1] Isuzu television advertisement, 1998

[2] Official state vehicle of Minnesota’s Wrestler/Governor Jesse ‘the Body’ Ventura.

[3] Atlantic Monthly, Sept. 1998

[4] Ibid.

[5] Honda television advertisement, 1998

[6] Toyota television advertisement, 1998

[7] Isuzu television advertisement, 1998

[8] Chevrolet television advertisement, 1998-9

[9] Atlantic Monthly, Dec. 1998

[10] National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA): Overview of Vehicle Compatibility/LTV Issues, February 1998, p. 7

[11] Ibid., p. 5

[12] Ibid., p. 2

[13] Older drivers, whom we might expect to be more responsible behind the wheel than their hot-blooded, newly licensed children, are particularly at fault here. The rate of fatalities among older drivers of SUVs nearly doubled between 1988 and 1996, a fact the NHTSA attributes to aggressive driving. Ibid., p. 8

[14] John S. Wright & Daniel S. Warner, Advertising, New York: McGraw-Hill 1966, p. 7-8

[15] Ibid., p. 77 [emphasis in original]

[16] Ibid., p. 78-9

[17] Ibid., p. 79

[18] Ibid., p. 7

[19] Reproduced in David Hawkes, Ideology, New York: Routledge 1996, p. 10-11

[20] Ibid., p. 11

[21] C. H. Sandage & Vernon Fryburger, Advertising Theory and Practice, Homewood: Richard D. Irwin, Inc. 1971, p. 76-77

[22] U.S. Census Bureau, “Income Inequality (Table) 1. Share of Aggregate Income Received by Each Fifth and Top 5 Percent of Families, 1947 to 1994” (accessed: 18 November 1999), <http://www.census.gov/hhes/income/incineq/p60tb1.html&gt;

[23] A standard statistical measure of inequality gauging the gap between high and low incomes. The higher the figure, the greater the level of inequality.

[24] U.S. Census Bureau, “Historical Income Tables – Households (Table) H-4. Gini Ratios for Households, by Race and Hispanic Origin of Householder: 1967 to 1998”, published 1 October 1999, <http://www.census.gov/hhes/income/histinc/h04.html&gt;

[25] Daniel H. Weinberg, U.S. Census Bureau, “A Brief Look at Postwar U.S. Income Inequality”, published 3 February 1999, <http://www.census.gov/hhes/income/incineq/p60asc.html&gt;

[26] U.S. Census Bureau, “Income Inequality (Table) 1. Share of Aggregate Income Received by Each Fifth and Top 5 Percent of Families, 1947 to 1994” (accessed: 18 November 1999), <http://www.census.gov/hhes/income/incineq/p60tb1.html&gt;

[27] New York Times, “Debate over Visas for Foreign Workers Focuses on Layoffs”, 17 June 1998

[28] Minneapolis Star-Tribune, “When Less is More?”, 3 January 1999

[29] U.S. Census Bureau, Statistical Abstract of the United States, (Table) 639. “Civilian Employment in the Fastest Growing and Fastest Declining Occupations: 1994 to 2005”, 1996

[30] Sandage & Fryburger, p. 268-72

[31] U.S. Census Bureau, op cit.

[32] Security Industry Association, Security Industry Market Overview, Alexandria: SIA 1997, p. 7

[33] Ibid., p. 6

[34] Ira Katznelson, “Considerations on Social Democracy in the United States”, Comparative Politics, v. 11, n. 1, Oct. 1978, p. 78

[35] Mike Davis, Prisoners of the American Dream, New York: Verso 1986, p. 136

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