Why an American Might Want a Gas-Guzzler

Jeffrey M. Landaw

October 11, 1990|By Jeffrey M. Landaw

AFEW WEEKS before Ernest B. Furgurson attacked the U.S. auto industry for building too many gas-guzzling big cars (''Tailfins Forever!'' Sept. 26), we took our pre-schooler on a two-week trip through eastern Canada and New England -- in a family-sized, option-loaded American car. Not cool, not chic, but we couldn't have done it any other way.

We weren't going to try to cover 3,800 miles in the kind of rolling matchbox in which we'd driven Abigail around the Low Countries last year. That trip had spread the same mileage or less over twice the time, and Abby, whose good temper has its limits, was now a year more likely to protest being jammed into a car seat and surrounded by baggage all day.

And much as we love trains -- or the idea of trains -- if we'd had to adapt to railroad schedules and pay train fares (or plane fares, or bus fares) for three people, and carry all our baggage and food, we'd never have been able to make the trip at all.

Almost everyone without a stake in the U.S. auto industry knows that most of its problems are of its own making. It wouldn't believe till almost too late -- I'm not sure it believes now -- that large parts of the buying public had lost interest in its mainstream products. It let its overhead balloon so high that it couldn't lose even a fifth of the market without its profits going into a tailspin, and it tried to recoup at the workers' expense while the men who made the wrong decisions kept their big salaries and bonuses. And instead of pulling its act together, it hollered for protection against those sneaky, market-conscious Europeans and Asians.

But it wouldn't have helped the industry much to listen to its noisiest and most prestigious critics. Large parts of the American intelligentsia have spent the years since Stevenson's first loss to Eisenhower trying to figure out why so many Americans rejected their advice on everything from consumer goods to presidential candidates. But they pose the questions in ways that almost guarantee answers that stroke their self-pity and contempt instead of producing real understanding and progress.

The industry's critics concede that Detroit kept producing big cars because many Americans didn't want small ones, but most of them won't take the point seriously. Americans' preferences for big cars, Mr. Furgurson writes, were ''created by the industry's multi-billion-dollar advertising, which plugged the cars with the fattest profit margins, and still does.''

In the same edition in which Mr. Furgurson dismissed the popularity of the big car, the owner of the Children's Bookstore in Roland Park dismissed the popularity of the best-selling Sweet Valley series of juvenile books. ''The Sweet Valley High syndrome is advertising, it's the bandwagon effect,'' JoAnn Fruchtman said. ''What is popular is what is advertised, not the other way around.''

Ah, advertising, the all-purpose reason why the Great Unwashed chooses so wrongly so often. My favorite short-form reaction to that came from an auto executive who heard about advertising manipulation once too often and asked, ''If advertising manipulates us that well, how come we didn't all drive here in Edsels?''

Most advertisements, especially in an atmosphere like America's, just cancel one another out. So many products are advertised so skillfully that advertising alone can't explain why some of them start a bandwagon effect when so many sink without a trace.

Volkswagen's ''soft-sell'' U.S. ads in the early Sixties were legendary, appealing to a college-educated cohort that was ready to drive its parents crazy by turning their simple material snobbery upside down. (One VW ad showed a be-chromed, two-toned Beetle over the headline, ''Never.'')

They worked because the Beetle was a good product: cheap, reliable, even cute, a combination of attributes Detroit never got into its own small cars. About the same time, Piel Bros., the New York brewer, had excellent ads, with Bob Elliott and Ray Goulding doing the voices of Bert and Harry Piel, but vanished anyway. As Jerry Della Femina wrote, the ads got people to try Piel's beer, but few people tried it a second time.

Many Americans had serious reasons for buying big cars (try crossing the country with one child, let alone two or more, in a small one), and Detroit had serious reasons for selling them (you can't stay in business without profits) Best-sellers become best-sellers by filling needs that may be tawdry but are as real to the people who feel them as the needs the critics approve of. But the critics don't seem willing to concede either point.

I may be oversimplifying Mrs. Fruchtman's views in particular, because you can't run a business by ignoring customers' tastes, and my family knows from experience that she runs hers wonderfully well. But few auto industry-baiters ever mention a critical reason Detroit lost so many younger buyers: Its cars weren't just vulgar, wasteful and poorly made, they were dull.

Choices have consequences, some so predictably harmful that it's better to foreclose them than to try to deal with them. Foreclosing such choices is the job of government under any social arrangement but an all-out libertarian paradise. And interfering with -- molding -- children's choices, of course, is a big part of what being a parent is all about.

That car of ours, a behemoth by any but North American standards, was interfered with to a good end. Thanks to the kind of fuel-economy standards Detroit is still fighting tooth and nail, we occasionally got over 30 miles to the gallon with a heavy load and frequent high speeds on less-than-ideal roads. And if we mold Abby's tastes the way we hope to, she'll think the Sweet Valley stories are as thin as Mrs. Fruchtman does.

But successful molding requires understanding that the choices you're interfering with are substantive, not the products of Madison Avenue sorcery.

*Mr. Landaw is a makeup editor with The Sun.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.