Guess what? Sex sells.
What kind of car should I buy?
The spoils go to whoever taps into the consumer consciousnesson this simple question; seven words that pull the purse strings on trillions in global booty every year.
TO BECOME MONUMENTAL — LEGENDARY EVEN — automobiles need to be more than four wheels, a Hemi, and a kick-ass spoiler. Cars need to have an identity all their own, and manufacturers spend millions every year trying to understand what people are searching for in their ideal vehicle. Luckily there are a handful ofpeople devoted to cracking the code on why some rides become Thunderbirds and others Pacers. Dr. Clotaire Rapaille, who heads up Archetype Discoveries Worldwide, a company that defines how products relate to culture, has done enough seminal work in this area to earn the nickname “the car shrink.”
Dr. Rapaille posits that humans have emotional reactions that become imprinted on the brain. It’s the job of product designers to tap into these triggers. It may sound like neuroogical mumbo-jumbo, but Dr.Rapaille’s theories are the reason that 50 ofthe Fortune 100 companies are his clients and why he is hotly sought after by the auto industry. Rapaille’s ideas go way beyond focus groups and standard market research, but his intricate theories start from a basic premise. “A car sends a message,”he says. “I’m convinced drivers don’t buy them to get from point A to point B.”
A car that is close to Rapaille’s heart is the PT Cruiser, which he helped design by incorporating the thuggish chic of Al Capone with the nourishing warmth of a womb. He assigned the PT Cruiser two distinct personalities, one for the interior and one for the exterior. Externally, the PT Cruiser screams masculinity, communicating its ability to endure rough conditions and exuding a “don’t mess with me” aura. Inside,however, it’s feminine, with rounded surfaces which Rapaille feels buyers equate with sensuality. There is only one animalistic desire that ties muscle cars with Mommy. “Most kids have their first sexual experience in a car,” says Rapaille, “so we transferred the bed into the automobile.” That’s why the PT Cruiser is roomy, comfortable, and has seats that can fold-down or be removed if the driver needs the extra space.
Price is less important once a driver knows what they want. Rapaille says sex is a fundamental draw for the American car buyer, even when they’re driving Larry David’s beloved green machine, the Toyota Prius. Rapaille believes the United States is an adolescent society, and teenagers don’t care what happens to the environment 20 years down the road. “American drivers want the car that gets the girl next door,” says Rapaille with a chuckle. “Right now the Prius will get you laid, just like when VW Beetles invaded college campuses in the ’60s.”
Sex isn’t the most basic ofinstincts though. Rapaille divides the consumer brain into three categories: cortex (intelligence,hard numbers), limbic (love,passion,raw emotion), and reptilian (survival). Occasionally a car will hit upon all three, but if it only manages to make good on one, survival of the fittest is the most likely to produce a consumer hit. The infestation of the Hummer is just one example Rapaille cites. “The Hummer is a fantastic success. Why? Nobody needs it to go grocery shopping,” Rapaille points out. “It says ‘we’re at war’ and nobody goes to war in a Honda Civic.”
A car doesn’t have to be as indestructible as the Terminator to have a strong identity and win supporters though. The proof is in the MINI. The MINI Cooper says, “I’m huggable, fashionable, and downtown New York City anglophile cool.” Even though it’s teeny, the MINI has that all-important personality factor. Rapaille knows a number of people with both a Hummer and a MINI and it’s because “neither is boring. So many cars are boring. When I rent cars I never know what I’m driving,” says Rapaille who loathes the bland, milquetoast similarity of most of today’s options and their boring letter-centric names that start with X, like Chevy Envoy XUV, or Nissan Xterra.
Individual models aren’t the only things that need overhauling in order to dominate the global car market. Contrary to most people’s beliefs, Rapaille claims that “American cars are superior to Europeans in terms of repairs and quality but nobody believes it.” Even though Rapaille thinks Buicks are better than BMWs, it’s ingrained in consumer brains that Europeans continually set the pace for making cars. However, if the Continent keeps delivering so-called classics that default on the essence of the earlier models that built their reputation, there may be an opening in car lovers’ hearts for American contenders. “The Rolls-Royce Phantom is terrible, completely off-code,” he says, pointing out the square headlights and the smaller flying lady that rob the $325,000 car of its character. “I don’t think the Queen of England wants to be driven around in a Phantom,” Rapaille remarks. “It’s ugly.”
Since the collective consumer brain zips along like Speed Racer while automakers move slower than the apple cart they aim to upset, it will be a while before reality triumphs over perception. Rapaille says the PT Cruiser had bad marketing and positioning but still managed to become a runaway hit. There should have been a $50,000 performance model at the ready, but bureaucracy always wins. Rapaille has a fundamental rule for car companies if they want to consistently crack the code (also true for highway rush hour traffic): “It’s better to be ahead than behind.”
(Illustration by Breanne Di Domenico.)
(PT Cruiser photo courtesy of Chrysler.)
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