When Janet Reno began her unsuccessful run for the governorship of Florida, she attracted almost as much attention for the way she chose to run — driving herself around the state in her red Ford pickup truck on what she called her “Red Truck Tour” — as for the issues she supported.
Reno’s Web site said of the campaign tactic, “The truck has come to characterize Janet, and subsequently, her campaign for governor of the state she so loves: straightforward, practical, not pretentious or showy. What you see is what you get.”
The merits of her campaign aside, one can hardly deny that Janet Reno’s pickup truck is a phenomenal example of the vehicle matching the owner. Unpretentious, homespun, non-exotic, straightforward. If one had to pick a vehicle for Reno from scratch, a Ford truck would probably be a top contender.
And so it goes for most of us. Intentional or not, our cars tell the world much about what type of person we are — our social and financial status, our need for outward validation, our security in our gender roles and even the transitional stages of our lives are broadcast to the world on four wheels.
Dr. Charles Kenny, a psychologist and president of consumer psychology firm Kenny & Associates, has interpreted consumer buying behavior for GM, Toyota and Nissan. He notes that on its face, the purchase of a new car is almost always designed to fulfill emotional needs because, as a pure economic purchase, it’s a bad investment.
“The purchase of a new car is a stupid thing because it depreciates,” says Dr. Kenny. “So from a rational standpoint, there are emotional and psychological factors driving the purchase, and people in the automotive industry know that. Nobody needs a new car. You can get a great used car for $10,000 to $15,000 less.”
Emotional needs filled by the purchase of an auto range from validation of sexuality to pure power.
“What’s a bigger, more powerful, more intimidating vehicle than a Hummer?” asks Dr. Kenny. “With 99 percent certainty, when a person buys a Hummer, there’s a strong power need to dominate others.”
While the connection seems obvious, Kenny says that the psychological needs fulfilled by a vehicle run deeper than many people think. Kenny talks about some of the research he participated in that led to the “Like a Rock” campaign for Chevy trucks in the ’80s, and how that derived from the relationship men have with their trucks.
“The truck enhances feelings of masculinity,” says Kenny. “It’s about gender identity, what it means to be a man. A man’s truck helps him feel more masculine. I worked with contractors during the summer, and they used to argue about who had a better truck. But they weren’t just talking about the truck. That was about who they are, and it came to symbolize their masculinity.”
But while car-as-indicator-of-personality can border on cliché — sports cars for age-defying middle-aged men, minivans for soccer moms, trucks for construction workers, etc. — the desire to buck or ignore these classifications can be just as informative.
Kenny tells how Sam Walton, creator of Wal-Mart, drove the same pickup truck for almost 30 years, even when he was one of the world’s richest men.
“He was so secure psychologically, that he didn’t feel the need to buy a new one,” says Kenny. “He did feel the need to have an old truck to show he didn’t waste anything, and that he was just another country boy.”
In fact, Walton, who died in 1992, had been quoted as saying “Why do I drive a pickup truck? What am I supposed to haul my dogs around in, a Rolls-Royce?”
Like Reno, this was clearly an unpretentious, practical, down-home person with nothing to prove.
But for people who do have something to prove, their car is often their first line of offense.
Daniel DiCriscio, a celebrity image consultant who has worked with such “luminaries” as Paula Jones, Pamela Anderson, Marilyn Manson, Faye Resnick and Kato Kaelin, helps his clients select cars that communicate a message to the world. While that client roster might lead one to believe he’s selected a few Yugo’s in his time, DiCriscio sums up what could be the mantra of his industry, “You can’t have a sexy pin-up pulling up in a beat-up Honda.”
As DiCriscio illustrates, matching the right car to the right person is more complicated than one might think.
“If it’s a political setting, you have to have a more upscale car, like a Mercedes or a BMW,” says DiCriscio, “and if it’s a playmate, it has to be sporty. But if they’re over 40, it has to be sporty but serious, not over the top, so they won’t look like an idiot driving around in a young car. For example, if you’re over 40, you have to be careful with a Mustang because you can look too old for a Mustang.”
DiCriscio says that Mercedes sports coupes are often the youth seekers car of choice, but they can err the other way, seeming “too standoffish for the younger crowd,” and points to SUVs as vehicles that straddle the line between youth and couth.
“Pam Anderson drives a big black SUV with black windows and nice shiny wheels,” says DiCriscio, “and it shows that she’s sporty and fun, but that the car is more her age. It shows she’s a mom because she needs the room, and it has the black windows for her privacy.”
Robert Thompson, professor of popular culture at Syracuse University, sees the SUV as almost a vehicle of avoidance, whether for old-fashion suburban moms like Anderson, or even more hip, flashy, modern families.
“It’s for people who need the space and versatility of a minivan,” says Thompson, “but can’t bring themselves to move into the minivan stage of life. The SUV, in some ways, lets you cop your old attitude while having the versatility of the roles you have to play.”
As evidence of this, Thompson cites the disparity between the vehicle’s image and its reality. “SUVs advertise what amazing places you can go,” says Thompson, “when virtually no one goes off-roading with it.”
Which illustrates a fundamental function of our cars — that they may say more about who we would like to be than who we actually are. Thompson points to the recently reissued VW Beetle as another car with an identity crisis.
“The old VW bug, with much of the floor rusted out, was the counter culture. It was the car of choice for professorial types,” says Thompson. “Now, with the reissued VW Bug’s price tag, it’s people who want to project what it used to stand for but have the money to project it with a new VW Bug.”
Bill Morden, vice chairman and chief creative officer of BBDO Detroit, is in charge of advertising for DaimlerChryler’s Chrysler, Dodge and Jeep brands. As one of the people responsible for creating these impressions, Morden sees (and dictates) how our relationships with our cars can keep us feeling younger and more self-confident.
“Jeep’s idea of conveying fun and freedom, making you seem a different type of individual, really hit home with the minivan segment,” says Morden. “And when SUV’s became larger, then they went more for the freedom person, including soccer moms.
“SUVs offered a different point of view of who you are. As we got older and baby boomers became parents, we didn’t want to be the clichéd soccer mom, but someone special. So we used the SUV category to make you someone special, not a follower.”
But if all these soccer moms uniformly Stepford Wife themselves toward SUVs in an effort to be bold individuals, then how do people separate themselves from the conformist statement that SUVs have become and hold on to genuine identity?
For some people the answer is to just not care, but now it seems even the apathetic have signature cars, like Toyotas, Hondas and Nissans — the practical cars.
New York comedian Moody McCarthy says, “My Honda Civic hatchback reminds me how little it bothers me that I’m dull. I’ve even thought to myself, gee, I wish this radio had more than six pre-sets for AM. I’m brazenly boring.”
And fellow comic Paul Horrocks reports that, “I bought a Corolla because I hate owning cars and wanted one that I could give a crap about.”
Even Thompson, a man who says that the auto “represents modern U.S. life in the last century,” tells us that, “I have no sense of fashion or style, so my 1996 Toyota Corolla communicates that I don’t care about my car. And that’s a statement.”
Of course, any statement can be interpreted differently by different people. Amy Keyishian, a writer and editor living in Brooklyn, is by her own admission “ridiculously obsessed” with the ’99 two-door black Honda Civic with five-speed transmission and custom wheels that she calls “Natasha.”
Keyishian feels that this particular car has, like the SUV, bridged a gap between boring and divine.
“Honda Civics are a really funny phenomenon,” says Keyishian. “On the one hand, they are almost eerily reliable, so they seem like they’d be a grandpa or soccer-mom choice. On the other hand, some kind of word-of-mouth viral marketing has made this a cool-kids car.
“This is good news for me because I can buy a skull-shaped gearshift knob and a flaming steering wheel cover. I’m pretty sure I have the only make and model that straddles the line between cool and reliable, though if I were really truly ironic, I guess I could get a Toyota Spyder.”
And sometimes, our car relays a status message we don’t necessarily want to convey. Brian Smith of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition believes that anyone driving a Hummer or SUV in a crowded city like San Francisco is saying, “Look at me. My television told me to buy this, so I did. You should think I’m rich and athletic, but really I’m just compensating for my balding head and waning sexual function.”
Larry Getlen is a freelance journalist and comedian in New York.
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