Discussion: Freedom Machine: How Advertising Keeps The Myth of the American Car Alive

Discussion for article #235679

I was more than a little surprised that none of my children showed any interest in car ownership (or even car use) in high school. Their technology connections were far more important. They traveled on public transportation or bicycle. Of course, it might be that the cost of owning and insuring a car is far beyond the means of most teens. I could buy a car and insure it with the pay from an after-school and summer job (also artifacts of a by-gone age). Like college tuition, paying for car ownership from a teen job is virtually impossible as the minimum wage and opportunities have not kept up with costs. Parents also may be able to help with college or a car but struggle to provide both. No advertising campaign can overcome those economics.


I wasn’t, on the other hand I was about to sell my car when living in Seattle in 2002. I found myself needing to force myself to drive monthly. Otherwise I was walking just about everywhere I needed to go; multiple grocery choices just walk two blocks, movie walk a block, opera about 3 blocks, museums about 1/4 mile, multiple malls walk 3/4 mile, farmers market walk 1/2 mile, 3/4/5 star restaurants walk between 1 and 5 blocks, etc, etc, etc. My choice would be to join a car sharing service for the few times one was needed and/or rent a car. Then I got transferred to Nebraska where everything was 30 miles away if not more. I quickly found another position as I was long over the “romance” of driving. As for my kids, they never had any car culture “romance” to begin with, a car is just another tool.


I’ve noticed the TV ads lately have gone from rock-climbing hogs to sleek cars that speed through city streets where there are no other vehicles or people or red lights. But as the article illustrates, the ads never had to make a lick of sense.


Snore…the car market has been changing for decades. Practical stuff like economy and safety never successfully sold until the 70s when the energy shortage and a series of recessions forced people to focus on cheap reliable transportation.Advertising has changed–there is less emphasis on styling and annual model changes with major alterations of sheet metal are a thing of the past. Men constitute avbout half the buyers so,…what a surprise a lot of advertising targets them.

Station wagons weren’t considered “dorky” back in the 50s, they were an innovation. Minivans were cool before they were a cliche.

A big part of lower driving rates is that reasonably reliable used cars are far more expensive than they used to be and although cars are much more reliable, they are more expensive to maintain.


Excellent piece. Well written.

It seems to me, though, that America’s love affair with the car started to fail as the middle class started to decline. For an ever larger percentage of the population a car is just how you move around from home to deadend job and back to home. You keep your car as long as you can because you have to eat.

Advances in technology have also helped diminish the sex appeal of the modern car. When I was young a man was expected to repair his own car. Pulling a head gasket or changing break pads was mucho macho. Even changing oil every 3000 miles was a sign of manhood. Today there is no way any body who isn’t a fully qualified tech with a full compliment of specialized electronic equipment can begin to work on a car. A man just uses his car like any other appliance. Every 10,000 he takes it to the dealership and the techs work their computer magic.

I have read that in the next few years most cars are going to drive themselves. How unmanly is that?

Ultimately the marketing strategy hasn’t changed because the people still paying top dollar for new cars (old white people) are into nostalgia. As people who can afford Buicks die off the marketing will change. .


OK, so it’s Monday morning, I’m just starting to get over a painful, week-long respiratory infection, and I get on my computer, check my emails, look over The Guardian site, then check in on TPM. I see this thing about Mad Men and Cars. Two of my favorite things! Hey, it’s a three-parter—should be fun to read.

Then I’m bushwhacked by THIS. Is this all this SLICE thing is good for—unimaginative crap about the evils White Christian Men do?

Auto advertising is generally macho, sexist crap. What a stunner. “Even Detroit, GM swears, isn’t doing as badly as you’ve heard.” Really? You’d think advertising is deceptive or something.

The history of automobile advertising has, for better or worse, been in step with this country’s cultural attitudes. I don’t’ need to be informed of that. This article so far has done what a lot of these SLICE articles do: take a handful of examples and use them to arrive at predetermined conclusions. That’s not good journalism. It’s not even good editorializing.

The 10 top-selling vehicles from 2014, according to Kelley Blue Book, were:


  1. Ford Fusion

  2. Honda Civic

  3. Honda CR-V

  4. Nissan Altima

  5. Toyota Corolla

  6. Honda Accord

  7. Toyota Camry

  8. Dodge Ram Trucks

  9. Chevy Silverado

  10. Ford F Series

[I doubt the Subaru GL Coupe made this list in 1973.]

American auto companies make their money selling trucks, primarily. It’s not difficult to understand why they feel compelled to make their truck commercials about badassness.

Check the commercials for cars 4-10. These aren’t ridiculous Matthew McConaughey Cadillac [CORRECTION: LINCOLN] commercials. They’re generally about being cool, which is a unisex concept. You’re not going to convince anyone looking at a Honda CR-V that a big mother-f***ing Cadillac [LINCOLN (or Cadillac, for that matter)] is a better choice (or vice-versa.)

Some editorializing:

If you know anything about Mad Men and/or cars and/or advertising, you’ll remember Volkswagen’s groundbreaking  “Lemon” ad. Does the writer think this ad was a fiction created for the show?

Plenty of car salesmen have told me they have to make the pitch to The Wife, because she’s the one who makes the decision. Are they lying to me?

And, finally, why is my Electric Smart Fortwo always being run off the road by women tearing up the suburban asphalt in Lexus SUVs? I’m only partially kidding here…


This is the opposite of the piece’s point–that, for reasons it outlines, car companies have been hesitant to face the music when it comes to our ambivalence about car culture.

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Except they haven’t.

Also, no need to be condescending. It was brilliant because it was counterintuitive–but it didn’t exactly influence the rest of car marketing.

I didn’t mean to be condescending. I would also disagree with the contention that this ad didn’t influence “the rest” of car marketing. Volkswagen was selling a Volkswagen, not a Buick. When the Honda Civic arrived, it wasn’t marketed as a muscle car. The VW Bug and Civic are two of the most successful cars in history.

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I don’t know for sure what Matthew McConaughey is selling but the company that is paying the bill is Lincoln not Cadillac.

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Interesting point about how technology has diminished the car’s sex appeal–it’s in line with who rules the cultural conversation generally nowadays. Even though techies in hoodies aren’t sexy, per se, they have an enormous sway on the direction of cutting-edge culture.


You’re right–it’s Lincoln–not Cadillac. But in a way, this supports my argument. Lincoln and Cadillac are long-time rivals. They sell similar cars in similar ways.

They are selling to the same old rich white men who still identify with the independence of the self reliant man. You are right, however, as to the marketing of most cars. My wife and I have a Prius and nobody sold it as a macho man car. Recently my daughter bought her first new car, a basic VW after carefully weighing all the differences between it and a couple of its competitors. I can assure you sex appeal didn’t enter into her decision. The car was not sold as being sexy in any way.

Sometime in the early 2000s the name for a professional who works on your car changed from the very testosterone laden “mechanic” to the far less sexy sounding “technician,” or"tech."

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I’ve turned violently against cars in the last few years from adopting a son and from my mother’s advancing health issues. I used to like them, but now when I see a car I see the #1 reason my son will end up in a casket before me and when I see sprawl I see a layout that traps my mother in her house. I still drive, because in Southern California I have to, but I hate it.

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I’ve seen articles like this over and over again. To me, when you look at cars strictly from a psycho-sexual-sociological point of view, and toss in some references to popular culture, you’ve got something to keep your eyes busy, but nothing that Don Draper can hang his hat on.

The “Myth of the American Car” may be dead, but the “Schtick of Selling the American a Car” isn’t. Consumers know the ads are part of the show that helps to start the odious cycle of buying a car. If anything, the process of buying a vehicle should have killed car sales long ago.

On the larger point of how cars are coming to an end, here are a few questions:

  1. If you live in a smaller city or rural town, and work at a job where you can’t arrive sweaty and smelly from walking or biking, what do you do?

  2. If you live in an area where there are no sidewalks, and little public transportation, what do you do?

  3. If you’ve just bought your first condo, how are you going to pick up all the things you bought from Craigslist, Home Depot, or Lowes?

  4. If you’ve just bought your first home, refer to the preceding question. If you’ve just had your first child, and daycare is more than a mile away, are you going to car share to get the child to school?

  5. If there is a problem at school that needs immediate attention, as a parent what’s your first option to get there?

  6. What do you do if you’re enjoying city life and transportation–but then get a new job in an outer 'burb?

Until the day Scotty can beam us back and forth–from the comfort of our own home, I’m thinking that cars will be with us.

The pundits, or the Unaccountable Class, say a lot of things. They say that the habits of young people in cities are killing car sales. The reality of a recent grad’s economic situation is a lot different than it was even 10 years ago. More debt, less opportunity for a decent job. If they live in a large city with a developed public transportation and car sharing infrastructure they can skip the purchase of the first car after college.

Improvements in public transportation and ride-sharing haven’t killed cars. They offer people more options–whether they already own a vehicle or not.

I don’t think they have zero interest in driving–but are waiting until they get the better job to get a vehicle. Or are waiting until they meet that girl or guy to start a family with, buying a home, etc.

The pundits say Uber killing the car. I’m thinking that Uber is killing the smelly cab. If you live in a small town or rural area, they’re killing the hyper-expensive, smelly cab as well.

On the whole, series like these are great mental popcorn, but not a good meal.


I’ve seen some advertising for Cadillac which features women drivers without kids, with the automobile serving as force multiplier for her independence and power. So,while I would agree that there’s been a lot of appeal to machismo, even sexism in car ads, I think there has been some marketing to women that extends beyond the minivan - car seat genre. As an aside, I don’t know of a lot of moms who would feel comfortable hauling their troop around on a city bus or a subway.

If America’s car culture is declining I see that as unfortunate. We have an opportunity to do cars right (cleaner, more efficient, safer, high tech, self driving) and continue to hold our unique place in the world with regard to personal transportation. Of course, this means nothing if we don’t invest in keeping up our aging highway infrastructure.

I submit that there are plenty of progressive opportunities that exist in making cars cleaner and more efficient, and creating jobs in the process of updating our highway system to better accommodate tomorrow’s fleet of smart cars. I hope that at least one writer in this discussion will approach the issue from that angle, and the whole series doesn’t consist of mass transit advocates wanting to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

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So, an education and poverty reporter comes up with a thesis about the auto industry and advertising, two things she doesn’t know much about, and comes up with an article to justify it. Of course there’s some truth to it. It is hardly the whole picture or anything new.

The Jordan Playboy (a low production car assembled from supplier parts without much original engineering) ads in 1923 are indeed famous because they represented an approach to advertising that was many decades ahead. Car advertising in the pre WWII period was actually very much about the various advantages and price of the car they were selling. Lots of text, not much image making.

Check out the text of the most famous Jordan Playboy ad (under a very abstracted color painting just barely depicting a car and horse racing along somewhere):

“SOMEWHERE west of Laramie there’s a bronco-busting, steer roping girl who knows what I’m talking about. She can tell what a sassy pony, that’s a cross between greased lighting and the place where it hits, can do with eleven hundred pounds of steel and action when he’s going high, wide and handsome. The truth is - the Playboy was built for her. Built for the lass whose, face is brown with the sun when the day is done of revel and romp and race. She loves the cross of the wild and the tame. There’s a savor of links about that car - of laughter and lilt and light - a hint of old loves - and saddle and quirt. It’s a brawny thing - yet a graceful thing for the sweep o’ the Avenue. Step into the Playboy when the hour grows dull with things gone dead and stale. Then start for the land of real living with the spirit of the lass who rides, lean and rangy, into the red horizon of a Wyoming twilight.”

Wow. No one writes like that any more! The rhythm of the writing carries the message as much as the imagery. So, all image making, and the image is of the new independent active outdoorsy WOMAN portrayed as an ideal. She’s the new 1920’s pants or short skirt wearing, uncorseted, liberated, short haircut, voting woman.

Facts are a little more complicated than the author’s thesis can contain. So she wrote something different.