Marketing 101 example: equating pickup trucks to the American way of life

A look at declines in pickup sales for American automakers includes this description of what pickups represent:

“Pickups represent a rugged sense of individualism for many Americans. They are the very definition of America in that they are larger than life like America and can both work and play hard,” said Erich Merkle, U.S. Ford sales analyst.

This is both a concise and bold marketing statement: pickups are the American way of life! The statement ties to multiple big themes that run through American culture: individualism, larger than life, hard work and lots of play. And it is a vehicle that allows the owner to participate in the pervasive driving culture in the United States. And all this just for $35,000 to $50,000 for a new truck!

A truck, like many consumer goods, is not just about functionality but is also a statement about the owners and what they want to be. Buying smartphones, single-family homes, clothing, and more fall into the same process: marketing appeals to our want for what we own to match our personality and/or aspirations. A truck is not just a truck; it is a statement about the driver. It says, “I eat a Prius for lunch” or “I need to do important projects” or “I have the resources to buy a new truck” (among other possible messages).

Then I am reminded that it is just a pickup truck. Vehicles are necessary in many American communities in order to get from Point A to Point B. But, many vehicles may work in order to accomplish regular tasks. If the primary vehicle use is for commuting to work or regular errands such as buying groceries or dropping off and picking up kids, a truck is probably not needed. Some people need trucks for regularly hauling items or for work.

For now, this match between pickups and the American Dream “works.” There are numerous other products that would wish to tie themselves as closely as pickup trucks to the base values of the American Dream. It may not be this way in several decades; perhaps the rugged individualism and freedom will be attached to fleets of electric vehicles that are at everyone’s beck and call. Until something changes, expect to continue to see the marketing pitch that pickups equal the American way of life.

Even in a country of sprawl and limited public life, there are plenty of places where people come in contact with many others

Watching reactions to the coronavirus in recent weeks presents a paradox connected to American social life and addressing contagious diseases: the country has pushed sprawl and private homes for decades and public life and community life is said to be in decline; yet, there are numerous spaces, public and private, where Americans regularly come together. And under the threat of disease, shutting down locations and/or quarantining large numbers of people would change social life dramatically even in an individualized, spread out society.

A few examples illustrate this well. One essential private space is the grocery store. Even in the age of the Internet deliveries and eating out, many Americans need to acquire food and other supplies for daily life. The experience of going to Walmart or another grocery chain is not necessarily a public experience – direct interaction with people there is likely limited – but the number of people who can cycle through a major store on a daily basis is high. Another semi-private space is churches. By choice, Americans attend religious services at a higher rate than most industrialized countries. Once there is a congregation of one hundred people or more, this brings together people who participate in a wide range of activities and go to a wide number of places.

An example of public spaces that would change dramatically are mass transit lines and transportation hubs. In a country where relatively few people take mass transit on a daily basis, there are a good number of Americans dependent on buses, trains, and subways and people who use multiple forms on a regular basis. Plus, the United States has relatively busy airports. A second example involves schools. Americans tend to think education is the secret to success and getting ahead and students from preschool to post-graduate settings gather in buildings to attend class and do related activities. For these students, school is about learning and social life, classrooms and lunchrooms, eating areas, and play or recreation areas. Schools and colleges can draw people from a broad set of backgrounds and locations.

Our public life may not be at the same level as it is in Italy; instead of sidewalk cafes, Americans can go through the drive-through of Starbucks. Perhaps this means it will be relatively easy for some Americans to quarantine or keep their social distance: many live in their private homes and have limited social interactions anyhow. At the same time, significant public health measures would change social life in ways that are noticeable and that some might miss. Indeed, could a national reminder of the social ties Americans do have lead to a revival in social interactions in times of more stability?

Collectively addressing traffic rather than individual drivers looking for the best route for them

As Waze and other apps route drivers all over the place in order to find the shortest route, one writer argues we need to consider how traffic and congestion is a collective issue:

Road traffic is a great example: absent other incentives, I’m always going to choose the fastest route home that is available to me, even though taking a longer, more circuitous route would help spread out traffic and ease congestion for other drivers across my city. Traffic engineers have long assumed that the Nash equilibrium describes real-world rush hours pretty well.

In fact, mathematical studies and behavioral experiments dating back to the 1960s have shown that the collective delay is almost always worse in the Nash equilibrium, a.k.a. “user-optimized” driving scenario, compared to a world where drivers worked as a team for smoother traffic overall. Imagine a centralized transportation planner who assigned commuters their routes based on what was going to most benefit everybody. That god-like figure could impel some drivers to protract their journeys in order to improve the overall flow and decrease the cumulative time spent in traffic.

In this “system-optimized” equilibrium, our trips would be less harried on average: One widely cited 2001 paper by computer scientists at Cornell found that a network of “user-optimized” drivers can experience travel times equivalent to what a network of “system-optimized” drivers would experience with twice as many cars. Transport engineers call the difference between selfish and social equilibria the “price of anarchy.”

And the proposed solution:

Perhaps the best approach to the future of traffic starts with redefining the problem we’re trying to solve. For most of the 20th century, the principal concern of transportation economists was to reduce travel time across a given distance. But getting as many people as possible to and from work, school, and shopping—period—might be the more important task. If the goal is reframed as increasing access, rather than increasing speed, then the answer involves more than traffic apps and vehicle transponders. Land use patterns would have to be rethought so that people can live closer to the destinations they care about. People should be able to walk as much as they want to, and use bikes, scooters, buses, and trains. Autonomous vehicles, if they come, ought to be carefully folded into the mix with care so as not to double down on congestion and carbon emissions.

The solution hints that this is a much larger issue than apps and whether they should be held responsible by the public. The underlying issue may be this: are Americans generally willing to set aside their own personal priorities in favor of societal arrangements that can benefit more people on the whole?

Americans like to drive and it is baked into the American way of life. One of the reasons Americans like their own vehicles is that it offers independence and control. Rather than relying on a set schedule or having or riding with other people or supporting big systems, Americans like the idea that they can get into their vehicle at any time and go wherever they want. They may not actually do this much – hence, we get fairly predictable rush hours when everyone is trying to go places at the same time – but individual vehicles provide options in a way that mass transit does not.

Making the switch over to systems rather than individual options – including mass transit – requires submitting parts of life to a collective that cares less about individuals and more about the whole. This same debate is playing out in other arenas such as how healthcare should be organized or whether wealth inequality should be addressed. If the favored outcome is individual choice, it is hard to move people toward collective approaches. Even if thinking of traffic and transportation as a larger system means that more people might be stuck less in traffic, the individual participant may not gain that much or may lose the feel of control. Access for all is a hard sell when many like their individual choices (even as they bemoan congestion).

It might take decades or generations before a significant shift away from individual drivers might occur. Indeed, more than just apps can continue to promote individual approaches to driving: ride-sharing still is largely an individual act and the private nature of self-driving cars might just make the choice to drive even easier for some.

A declining American belief in God, country, and family

Pollsters and sociologists find a shift away from three American values:

The nuclear family, religious fealty, and national pride—family, God, and country—are a holy trinity of American traditionalism. The fact that allegiance to all three is in precipitous decline tells us something important about the evolution of the American identity…

But it looks like something bigger is going on. Millennials and Gen Z are not only unlikely to call themselves Protestants and patriots, but also less likely to call themselves Democrats or Republicans. They seem most comfortable with unaffiliation, even anti-affiliation. They are less likely than preceding generations to identify as “environmentalists,” less likely to be loyal to specific brands, and less likely to trust authorities, or companies, or institutions. Less than one-third of them say they have “a lot of confidence” in unions, or Silicon Valley, or the federal government, or the news, or the justice system. And don’t even get them started on the banks...

The older working-class men in the Edin, Nelson, et al paper desperately want meaning in their lives, but they lack the social structures that have historically been the surest vehicles for meaning-making. They want to be fathers without nuclear families. They want spirituality without organized religion. They want psychic empowerment from work in an economy that has reduced their economic power. They want freedom from pain and misery at a time when the pharmaceutical solutions to those maladies are addictive and deadly. They want the same pride and esteem and belonging that people have always wanted.

The ends of Millennials and Gen-Z are similarly traditional. The NBC/WSJ poll found that, for all their institutional skepticism, this group was more likely than Gen-Xers to value “community involvement” and more likely than all older groups to prize “tolerance for others.” This is not the picture of a generation that has fallen into hopelessness, but rather a group that is focused on building solidarity with other victims of economic and social injustice. Younger generations have been the force behind equality movements like #BlackLivesMatter, #MeToo, #AbolishICE, and Medicare for All, not only because they’re liberal, and not only because they have the technological savvy to organize across the Internet, but also because their experience in this economy makes them exquisitely sensitive to institutional abuses of power, and doubly eager to correct it. What Americans young and old are abandoning is not so much the promise of family, faith, and national pride, but the trust that America’s existing institutions can be relied on to provide for them.

My first thought: I wonder if these three values have been consistent throughout American history or are more particular to the postwar era. It was in the prosperity of roughly 15-20 years after World War II that Americans became the most religious, the nuclear family became the ideal, and America saw itself as opposed to communism and the Soviet Union. Additionally, a number of societal institutions were relatively strong and well-regarded. Prior to this era, would the same values have held and/or would others have been in the top three? For example, I could imagine making a case for individualism as a core American value from the beginning. This would, to some degree, be in opposition to all three of God, country, and family which require loyalty to larger groups or beings.

My second thought: what comes next in a trinity of American values? Would something like self, community, and success work?

Social media reveals ongoing American tension between the individual and community life

A cultural historian who examined differences in loneliness between the 19th century and today comments on a larger tension in social interaction:

Sean Illing

In the book, you say that the “new American self” is torn between individualism and community, between selfishness and sociability. Can you explain what you mean?

Susan J. Matt…

While constantly uploading selfies could be understood as selfish, deep down what’s often motivating it is a longing for affirmation from one’s community. What you’re looking for when you post all this stuff is for your friends and family to like you. Right? And that’s a very sociable and communitarian instinct.

And lots of bloggers we interviewed said the same thing. It’s not just Facebook and Twitter, where we’re looking for the “Likes” or the thumbs-ups or the hearts. Bloggers told us they wanted to express themselves, but it only meant something to them if other people liked it.

So the tension between individualism and communitarianism is a longstanding one in American life. And it’s playing out anew in social media, as people try to get their individual voices out there while seeking the affirmation and approval of others.

Three quick thoughts:

1. Seeking affirmation is not necessarily a bad thing. In a face-to-face social interaction, isn’t each participant hoping that the other people respond favorably? This involves the concept of the “generalized other” and “impression management” in sociology: we act in certain ways because we anticipate how others will respond to us.

2. This tension plays out in numerous ways in American history. Two examples come to mind. First, the desire for small town life yet wanting the excitement and opportunities of cities (so meeting in the suburbs). Second, the desire to not be compelled to act in certain ways yet supporting local government and voluntary associations.

3. Another angle to take regarding this issue is whether smartphones and social media are separate phenomena with unique consequences or whether they follow in the line of other mass media technologies and exacerbate existing issues.

Possible limits even as more Americans seek housing that accommodates multiple generations

If more Americans want to live in multigenerational households, can they find homes that make room for this arrangement?

But for complex reasons that still puzzle researchers, multigenerational households are now on the rise once more. As many as 41% of Americans buying a home are considering accommodating an elderly parent or an adult child, according to a survey conducted by John Burns Real Estate Consulting. Living with your parents (or your adult children) has plenty of potential benefits–everyone tends to save money, it can potentially benefit health outcomes, and you get to spend more time together.

Just one problem: American housing stock, dominated by single-family homes and connected by cars, isn’t really designed for it…

The advent of commercial air travel and the rapid expansion of American suburbia made inexpensive, single-family housing–and cross-country travel–attainable for more and more people. By 1950, just 21% of American households contained two or more generations. New funding for nursing homes from the Federal Housing Administration led to a boom in private nursing homes in 1950s and ’60s, and over time it became more and more normal to self-select into senior housing rather than living with your children. By 1980, the number of multigenerational homes had dropped to just 12%, according to Pew

But in any case, homes designed specifically for multigenerational living are still a small segment of the housing market. Far more common are families that have renovated their homes to suit aging parents or adult children, like the architect Cini, whose firm Mosaic Design specializes in senior design, particularly assisted living centers. Her personal experience with multigenerational life eventually led to a book, Hive, a practical how-to for other families who, either by necessity or choice, are moving in together. In large part, Hive addresses the unspoken taboos and tensions of living with your parents and grandparents.

No doubt there are complex social and cultural shifts behind this. The 20th century of mass American suburbanization may be an outlier in human history with the significant move to private single-family homes.

The larger issue that is reflected in this housing crunch may be that of increasing individualism and autonomy in recent centuries. Even the discussions of possible solutions to this housing issue betray this. The nursing home frees the family from obligations to care for elderly or infirm family members. Cohousing provides more community but residents still retreat to private units. Making alterations to a single-family home to accommodate family members can often lead to in-law suites or separate entrances.

Put another way, economic conditions and/or changing relationships between generations mean that more families want to live together but there are limits on how much autonomy or privacy family members are willing to give up. How a family arranges the space in its home could take many different forms. I don’t think anyone is recommending family members all sleep in just one or a few rooms, something common to much of human history. But, living together also does not necessarily mean that family members sharing an address actually see each other that much. A converted single-family home could be more like a duplex than a tight multigenerational setup. Family may be good to have close but perhaps not too close?

Or, to put it a third way, how many Americans would choose these multifamily or cohousing setups if the price of housing was not too high? The social benefits of a multigenerational family home could be high but Americans also value their autonomy.

 

1960s white religious leaders: God told us to love our neighbors but did not mean to pick our neighbors for us

My history colleague Karen Johnson recently delivered the first Faith and Learning lecture on the Wheaton College campus titled “Place Matters:  The vocation of where we live and how we live there.” See the talk here.

One quote from her talk (roughly 35:50 into the talk) stuck with me. In opposing open housing efforts in the 1960s through the Illinois Association of Real Estate Boards, white religious leaders said:

“We don’t doubt the words of Him who said, ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself,’ but we do doubt, gentlemen, that He meant to disturb our American heritage and freedoms by picking these neighbors for us.”
Three features of this stand out:
1. I suspect this logic is still in use in many American communities today. Individual liberty about where to live is more prized than government intervention to help those who cannot move to certain places unless they have help (usually for reasons connected to social class and race and ethnicity). While it is couched in religious terms in this quote, I don’t think it needs religious backing to be widely supported by many suburbanites or wealthier residents.
2. Connected to the first point, few white and wealthier residents would today explicitly say that their opposition to affordable housing or government intervention to bring new people to communities is because of race and ethnicity (some government intervention in housing is more than acceptable as long as it helps the right people). They might talk in terms of social class or the character of the community. But, it still often comes down to race and who are desirable neighbors.
3. The mixing of American and religious values is strong. For American Christians, where do individual liberties end and Christian responsibilities begin? Which takes precedence? All religious groups have to think about which ideas and values to take on within particular contexts (whether nations, communities, or subgroups). A good portion of the critique of conservative Protestants often seems to involve the blurring of these lines: can these Christians see when their own stated religious commitments do not align with particular American commitments?