A nation hooked on cars

Vroom! Vroom!
By DAVID SCHARFENBERG  |  January 27, 2010


The car is at the center of many of our troubles — our addiction to oil, the warming of the planet. Car accidents do incalculable damage.

But the vehicle has become such a central part of our culture, such an engine of daily living, that we rarely stop to think about how we got so hooked.

Brown University anthropologist Catherine Lutz and her sister Anne Lutz Fernandez, a former marketer and investment banker, tackle the topic in their new book Carjacked: The Culture of the Automobile & Its Effect On Our Lives.

The Phoenix recently chatted with Catherine Lutz about our car dependence and how we might break it. The interview is edited and condensed for length.

WHY IS IT SO DIFFICULT FOR US, AS A CULTURE, TO BREAK OUR DEPENDENCE ON CARS? There's a couple things. There's the fact that we already have built a society around the car so you basically have few options to do anything but use a car. Years of public policy have created an infrastructure that really makes it easier to get in the car than to get on a train. We haven't built a mass transit-based transportation system. That comes out of public policy choices that were made under great pressure from the car and oil industry.

The other thing is the effect of car advertising on people's ideas about who they are and what they should be doing. Dollar-wise, it's the most significant advertising area. And these ads are lavished with funds and creative talent that basically suggest to people that fabulous things will happen to you if you have a car — you will be free, you will be sexy, you will be the right kind of man, the right kind of woman.

People have come to attach their own sense of value and worth — their own values — to the car. If we want to be free, how do we do that? We buy a car. If we want to be individuals, how do we do that? We buy just the right kind of car. We interviewed lots of people who said things like, 'this car is really me.'

YOU ANTICIPATED MY SECOND QUESTION ABOUT CAR ADVERTISING. IS THERE ANYTHING YOU'D LIKE TO ADD ABOUT WHY IT WORKS? They have done a tremendous amount of research to try to figure out what it is that taps into people's subconscious or conscious sense of value. So they know that a certain kind of grill structure will appeal to people's sense of wanting to be safe on the road or wanting to be, even, a little bit threatening to others on the road.

[But] it's not like they're just appealing to the worst part of ourselves. That's something that throws people off: they think, "Well, you know, you're suggesting that I'm a nitwit because the advertising affects me." Well, no, the advertising often says you love your kids, you love your family so much, you will buy this car, which helps you do that — protect them from danger by putting them in this Volvo, or whichever car has a new safety element that they suggest is going to keep your family safe.

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