Saturday, December 10, 2016

Selling: SMART

Somewhere in the 1970's, marketers realized that you could sell products as "smart".

When I was a kid, the three big car makers sold enormous cars that had baroque doo-dads all over them.   They were designed to appeal to your lesser instincts - the need for status, luxury, power, authority, and of course, conformity.   We thought nothing of buying a station wagon slathered in fake "dinoc" wood paneling, because everyone else on the block had one.   Why this fake wood paneling looked good or even added value to the car wasn't the question.   It cost more, and you wanted everyone to know you bought the top model.   And of course, you had to trade it in before that dinoc started to turn white, so not only did you pay more, you got less car out of the deal.

Pretty dumb.  And cars back then were pretty poorly made, despite how many hot-rod or muscle-car shows you watch.   They pretty much fell apart the day you bought them.

By the 1970's, however, people who bought those "funny foreign cars" were discovering not only did they get good gas mileage, they held together far longer than US makes.   People with Japanese cars were going over 100,000 miles (!!!) and on the original clutch!   Most US cars would be in the junkyard by then - and on their third clutch, of course.

Suddenly, "Buy American" seemed pretty stupid.  You were just throwing money away and big chunks of it, too.

But another aspect of this came to light - buying a mid-1970's American-made rustbucket was seem as a choice made only by very dim-witted people.   Only the sort of folks who thought that fake wood meant "quality" and that a vinyl roof with landau bars was "stylish" bought American iron.  And in places like the Midwest, such style choices are still seen today.

In the coastal cities, however, buying such a car would mark you as a dork.   Indeed, even renting an American car was viewed as a sign of dorkdom, as Woody Allen discovered when he rented a Cadilliac convertible in the movie Annie Hall.  He thought it was top-of-the-line, but in Southern California, it wasn't viewed as an intelligent choice.

And that, in short, is how BMW and Mercedes-Benz supplanted Lincoln and Cadillac as the top luxury brands in the United States.   If you looked at the cars they offered in the 1960's and 1970's, you might have laughed.   They were small, largely under-powered, and had anemic air conditioning.  But they were viewed as a "smart" buy due to their durability and handling.

Today, the label "Smart" is applied to everything from dog food to dishwashers.   You don't want to be caught buying the dork model, that is for sure.   Even though today, almost every car is made just about the same way, comes with the same options, and indeed has parts made by the same manufacturer, some are viewed as "Smart" cars (indeed, that is even a brand name) while others are viewed as dumb.

In other words, "buying smart" is a form of status-seeking, and the marketer who try to control our lives know we crave status.   So they sell us on "Smart"!