Previously owned and feeling used

November 13, 1997|By KEVIN COWHERD

FOR THE LATEST disturbing trend in advertising, we have only to look at the used-car industry.

Except they don't call them "used" cars anymore.

Now they call them "previously owned" cars.

Apparently, the term "used" car summoned too many negative images in the minds of car buyers.

The main image it summoned was that of a slick-talking salesman with a loud sport coat and 17 gold chains around his neck peddling a shiny but dreadfully over-priced sedan, which dies in a smoking, belching heap in some poor slob's driveway two months later.

This, understandably, was not the image the used-car industry wanted to project.

Oh, they had no problem with the loud sport coat and the 17 gold chains, this being the standard workday uniform in the industry for nearly three decades now. But that part about the heap dying in the driveway -- that was bad for business.

So not long ago, representatives of the used-car industry convened for a symposium at a hotel in East Rutherford, N.J., I think it was.

The working title for the symposium was: "How Can We Make the Public Believe We're Not Peddling Heaps?"

The first meeting, in the hotel ballroom, was quickly gaveled to order.

Nobody said anything for a while; all eyes, it seemed, were cast longingly at an old box of Dunkin' Donuts that had been left on a table in the corner, each person thinking: "I wonder if there's anything left in there."

But finally a guy from Michigan (or maybe it was Minnesota) shouted: "I got it! Instead of calling them 'used' cars, let's call 'em 'previously owned!' "

Well. From the looks of pure joy radiating from the hundreds of sweaty faces in the room, you'd have thought they'd discovered the secret to eternal life.

With that, they all stood up and slapped each other on the back and headed off for the nearest Happy Hour, where they feasted on Buffalo wings and knocked back many, many Coronas with lime wedges until, alas, the bartender announced last call and it was time to go home.

And thus was born the visionary advertising concept which you are witnessing today.

Whether calling a car "previously owned" instead of "used" will increase sales, well, only time will tell.

I myself tend to shy away from previously owned cars, due to a series of previously owned cars purchased in the days when I was much younger and poorer.

One of my previously owned cars was a 1967 Volkswagen that apparently was previously owned by Che Guevara.

I say this because there were several huge tears in both the driver and front passenger seats, as if someone had hacked them violently with a machete.

There were also a number of prominent dents on the body, which could have been put there when Che and members of his revolutionary brigade got all liquored up and took the car joy-riding in the foothills of Havana.

But the price was right, and as I stood there examining the car, a 40-something man in a loud sport coat and 17 gold chains materialized at my side.

The man introduced himself as Stu. He was carrying a Styrofoam cup of coffee.

"Glad to meetcha!" Stu said, pumping my hand about 30 times and spilling coffee on my shoes.

Then Stu took me back to his little desk off the showroom floor, which was dominated by bowling trophies and an ashtray

overflowing with Viceroy butts.

"You bowl?" asked Stu, who quickly informed me he was carrying a 177 average in the Wednesday Nite Men's B League, despite a nasty hook that had been throwing off his game of late.

When I said I didn't, his face fell, as if I'd just announced I had tuberculosis.

But suddenly he brightened.

"So you like that baby, right?! She's a beauty, right?!" he said, like we were talking about a brand-new Cadillac.

I was 19, which of course meant I was enormously stupid. Therefore it took Stu approximately 15 seconds to close the deal.

Here's the ugly part: The car died on me three times in the next three months.

The last time it died, I found myself on the shoulder of the New Jersey Turnpike (Exit 9) in a driving rainstorm.

Three nuns in a Ford Falcon stopped and one of them asked: "You want us to call a tow truck?"

"No, I want you to call a priest," I said. "Someone should say the last rites over this thing."

That was my last previously owned car, and I plan to keep it that way.

Pub Date: 11/13/97

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