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SUV Buyers - selfish, shallow, and aggressive
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Source: NY Times
WAS FREUD A MINIVAN OR S.U.V. KIND OF GUY?
By Keith Bradsher
New York Times
July 17, 2000
Of all the mysteries facing automakers in recent years, few have
been so engrossing as how families choose between minivans and
sport utility vehicles.
To look at them by median income, age, occupation, family size or
where they live, people who buy minivans and people who buy
sport utilities look fairly similar, the automakers' research has
found. The typical minivan or sport utility purchaser is most often a
fairly affluent married couple in their 40's with children. And while
minivans are sometimes labeled "mom-mobiles," the principal
drivers of minivans, like sport utility vehicles, are actually a little
more likely to be men than women.
Yet a growing body of research by automakers is finding that
buyers of these two kinds of vehicles are very different
psychologically. Sport utility buyers tend to be more restless, more
sybaritic, less social people who are "self-oriented," to use the
automakers' words, and who have strong conscious or
subconscious fears of crime. Minivan buyers tend to be more self-
confident and more "other-oriented" -- more involved with family,
friends and their communities.
Automakers have spent lavishly over the last several years to
examine these customers' deeper urges. The automakers find the
research persuasive enough that it is affecting the way automobiles
are designed and advertised.
While the psychological research is closely guarded by the
automakers, executives are willing to discuss some details. For
example, minivan buyers tend to be more comfortable than sport
utility buyers with being married; sport utility buyers are more
commonly concerned with still feeling sexy, and like the idea that
they could use their vehicles to start dating again, said David P.
Bostwick, DaimlerChrysler's director of market research.
"We have a basic resistance in our society to admitting that we are
parents, and no longer able to go out and find another mate," Mr.
Bostwick said. "If you have a sport utility, you can have the
smoked windows, put the children in the back and pretend you're
Minivan buyers are also less likely than sport utility buyers to have
reservations about being parents. "Sport utility people say, 'I
already have two kids, I don't need 20,' " Mr. Bostwick said. "Then
we talk to the people who have minivans and they say, 'I don't have
two kids, I have 20 -- all the kids in the neighborhood.' "
Such psychological factors play a bigger role in the dividing line
between minivan and sport utility customers than in the division
between any other segments of the auto market, he added.
Since last autumn, General Motors has held seminars with
customers, some lasting as long as two days, and reached many
of the same conclusions as DaimlerChrysler, said Fred J.
Schaafsma, a top G.M. vehicle development engineer. Both groups
of buyers say they want to be "in control" in a vehicle, yet mean
completely different things by this, the research found.
"Minivan people want to be in control in terms of safety, being able
to park and maneuver in traffic, being able to get elderly people in
and out," Mr. Schaafsma said. "S.U.V. owners want to be more
like, 'I'm in control of the people around me.' " This is an important
reason why seats are mounted higher in sport utilities than in
minivans, he said.
Sport utility buyers are much more concerned with their vehicles'
external appearance, while minivan buyers are more interested in
the vehicles' interiors and practicality, said Thomas Elliott, Honda's
executive vice president for North American auto operations. "The
people who buy S.U.V.'s are in many cases buying the outside first
and then the inside," he said. "They are buying the image of the
S.U.V. first, and then the functionality."
Strategic Vision, a market research company in San Diego that
does a lot of work for the auto industry, has found that a greater
percentage of minivan buyers than sport utility buyers are involved
in their communities and families. Minivan buyers are more likely
than buyers of any other kind of vehicle to attend religious services
and to engage in volunteer work, while sport utility buyers rank with
pickup truck buyers and sports car buyers as the least likely to do
either, the company found in a survey this spring of 19,600 recent
buyers, including 5,400 minivan and sport utility buyers. A greater
percentage of sport utility buyers dine at fine restaurants, go to
nightclubs and sporting events, and work out.
Auto Pacific Inc., an auto market research company in Santa Ana,
Calif., found in another large survey this spring that sport utility
buyers placed a lower value than minivan buyers on showing
courtesy on the road. Sport utility buyers were more likely to agree
with the statement, "I'm a great driver," and to say that they drove
faster than the average motorist.
Mr. Bostwick said that while some sport utility buyers mention that
the vehicles' sturdy appearance looks safe to them, safety during
traffic accidents tends not to be the real reason they buy a vehicle.
"It's not safety as the issue, it's aggressiveness, it's the ability to
go off the road," he said.
Death rates in crashes are roughly the same for sport utility
occupants as for car occupants, and slightly lower for minivan
The industry's research on buyer psychology has already
influenced the designs of minivans and sport utilities.
DaimlerChrysler has chosen high-riding designs even for the two-
wheel-drive versions of its sport utilities, even though they are
unlikely to be driven over rough terrain and are therefore unlikely to
need to ride higher, said David C. McKinnon, DaimlerChrysler's
director of vehicle exterior design. Mr. McKinnon said the
company's highest executives had told him repeatedly to "get them
up in the air and make them husky."
For the minivan, he said, the goal was an attractive interior that
would make buyers feel as if they were once again "in the womb."
The market research is also reflected in advertising. Ford currently
has television and print ads showing a dozen mothers with their
children arranged around a Windstar minivan. The ads explain that
the mothers, all Ford employees, worked together on a recent
redesign of the vehicle.
By contrast, a recent television ad for the Jeep Grand Cherokee
Limited showed a driver who had to scale a pile of rocks that had
blocked the driveway to his mansion, in a scene intended to show
that a sport utility owner can overcome a threat. Similar themes
have been found in ads for the Lincoln Navigator, promoting it as an
"Urban Assault Luxury Vehicle" or urging customers to "Ditch the
Mr. Bostwick of DaimlerChrysler and other auto market
researchers said they had been greatly influenced by Dr. Clotaire
Rapaille, a French-born medical anthropologist who has worked as
a consultant to DaimlerChrysler, Ford and General Motors.
Dr. Rapaille looks at the intellectual, emotional and "reptilian," or
instinctual, reasons why people buy consumer products. He said
sport utilities are designed to be masculine and assertive, often
with hoods that resemble those on 18-wheel trucks, vertical metal
slats across the grilles to give the appearance of a jungle cat's
teeth and flared wheel wells and fenders that suggest the bulging
muscles in a clenched jaw.
Sport utilities are designed to appeal to Americans' deepest fears
of violence and crime, Dr. Rapaille said. People's earliest
associations with sport utilities are wartime Jeeps with machine
guns mounted on the back, he explained. Sport utilities are
"weapons" and "armored cars for the battlefield," he said.
Detroit advertising agencies have looked at buying the rights to
make television commercials from the "Mad Max" series of movies,
and inserting footage of sport utilities into movie scenes showing
combat in the Australian desert by bloodthirsty, leather-clad biker
gangs in masks, Dr. Rapaille said.
"The big, powerful S.U.V.'s with a message of 'don't mess with me'
are going to be around for some time, because American culture is
not going to change," he said.
By contrast, he said, sedans and station wagons have open grilles
that look toothless. Sport utilities come in a wider range of designs
than minivans, and the range of buyers' ages and incomes is
therefore wider for sport utility buyers. But automakers say their
psychological research confirms that the differences between sport
utility buyers and minivan buyers hold true even among families in
their 40's with children.
Relatively little research has been done on buyers of station
wagons, because the wagon market is only a fifth the size of the
minivan market and a tenth the size of the sport utility market.
Large cars are another choice for families, but they are shunned by
many middle-aged buyers as vehicles for old people. And while the
midsize car market still attracts many
families, it too has been dwindling.
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