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The Emotional Connection To Cars

Over the last year I made an important choice that had repercussions far beyond what I anticipated. It was an experience that taught me something about a product that mere involvement with that product could never have taught.

Early in 2009 my car gave up the ghost. I mean seriously gave up the ghost. As in the price to fix it was more than the blue book value and even charities wouldn't come and take it from driveway. We're talking seriously big-piece-of-garbage dead.

Thus, a choice was brought before me. I work from home and for some time Mrs. Bean and I had been debating on whether we even needed two cars. We knew it would be hard to negotiate a schedule and share rides, but the idea of buying a new car that would sit in the driveway for days on end made very little sense.

Living Carless

So we made the decision to live with one car. Good for our wallets. Good for the environment. Good as an example to others. We were practically saints in our own minds.

Really, it wasn't that hard to manage the schedule either. I didn't leave the house all that much. And when I traveled it was usually by air, so a quick trip to the airport was easy to arrange.

But over time I started becoming increasingly irritable about the situation. It wasn't that I needed the car. Sure, there were conflicts over who would get the car on certain days, but most of the time I just didn't need it. It wasn't even the discomfort of walking places in 90 degree heat or having to take my wife in to work. This was something bigger. I was beginning to feeltrapped. It wasn't that I needed to go somewhere on a whim. It was that I couldn't go somehwere on a whim.

I began to realize that I had always had a car I could call my own since I was 16 years old. It was a freedom that I couldn't put into words. Even the crappy cars I owned had a special place in my heart. Good Lord! I even wrote an Ode to a Car for a POS that I hated worse than people who abuse animals or troll dolls.

Powerful and Untapped Emotions

It strikes me now that I have NEVER seen this depth of emotional attachment for a car expressed in a car commercial. (One comes close, but we'll get to that in a second.) Certainly there have been lame attempts to communicate "freedom" and "empowerment." There have been stunts like a man licking a car handle to mark his choice at the dealer or people washing their car roof with near sexual glee. But never once have I seen the level of devotion that I feel for the act of driving seriously communicated in a car ad.

Maybe it's because guys can't communicate emotions well and men are largely tasked with writing car ads. Maybe it's because this insight is not product focused enough for an industry obsessed with leather seats and center consoles. Maybe it's too hard to put into words. Maybe there aren't enough breasts in this idea. But I think the biggest disconnect comes from the fact that few of us have ever had to live without a means of transportation, so we just don't remember how important our cars have become to our identity.

To put it another way, with most products an ad team would immerse themselves in the experience of using and understanding what they would be promoting. But with cars, they have become such a staple of life that we forget what a powerfully motivating factor "car freedom" can be.

Show A Little Understanding

Detroit remains in turmoil. GM is emerging from bankruptcy, but struggling to communicate its value. Chrysler has one foot out the door and has still not found its voice. Ford, despite its successes of late, is still tied to the fate of the others through is supply chain needs. With such uncertainty, maybe it's time to regroup and not push lifestyle (I Jeep? Please!) and feature messages (Just shut up already, Howie!) and start speaking to the heart again.

It's ironic that Ford would be leading the way on this, considering it was Henry Ford's simple message of freedom for the average man that first positioned the car to the masses. I mentioned that one campaign comes close to what I'm speaking of and their latest ads do a passingly good job of capturing the emotions I described. A car is my space, as valuable as any room in my house. And it's intrinsically tied to my identity. These ads capture a bit of the sense of identity people find in their cars, while still talking features.

But let's not stop here. Let's move the needle on emotion and tie into the need to buy a car. This isn't an option. This is a necessity. Let's see more communication of what freedom really means and a little less of insufferably beautiful people with wind in their hair. This is life or death people. After all, if you avoid buying that next car you could end up like Bob, sitting at home, bumming rides from people. And that would be a terrible fate. (Feel free to use that in your next commercial, guys. I need cash to buy a new car anyway.)

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