Sorry Gen X, but you share the blame for why Millennials love SUVs
Boomers set the pace in the 1970s and ’80s, but their Gen X kid brothers and sisters happily tagged along for the ride in the ’90s, Livin’ la Vida Loca. By 2000, light trucks took half (51%) of U.S. new vehicle sales.
No surprise, when the Boomers’ own children, the Millennials, began driving they had been thoroughly imprinted: SUVs and trucks were undisputedly cool. Game over. The “car” share of the U.S. new light vehicle market in 2019 was just 28%, barely one third of the 1970 level (82%).
It all began somewhere west of Laramie.
Bucking conventional wisdom
It was 1923.
Long after the Playboy had run its course, Jordan’s revolutionary approach would set the standard for emotion-based auto advertising down to today.
Focused on the personality of the car and its driver, he provided no stats, mechanical data or specs. Instead, he let that lean and rangy, steer-roping girl thrill prospects into showrooms.
Jordan sure wasn’t afraid to buck convention. And he wasn’t afraid to use the word “girl” either. When he bucked convention, he really bucked it.
Well, in 1923 Wyoming was part of a Wild West still vivid in the public memory.
Marshal Wyatt “OK Corral” Earp was now consulting in Hollywood, coaching silent screen cowboy idols William S. Hart and Tom Mix.
What Jordan knew full well was that the West symbolized adventure, action and, above all, freedom. So too did automobiles.
A century later, this symbolism still plays out in the auto arena, running in background as the socio-cultural programming of truck and SUV world.
Boomers and westerns: enduring imprinting
Wildly popular ever since The Great Train Robbery (1903), they had both super-sized to wide screen color movie epics and shrunk to fit the mid-century television sets before which little Boomers sprawled, wide-eyed, on shag carpets.
In the late 1950s and early ’60s over twenty western series ran weekly in prime time – favorites grabbed 30-40% of the total viewing audience. Only the Super Bowl does better today.
Gunsmoke (1955-1975), Bonanza (1959-1973) and The Virginian (1962-1971) kept the TV trail open; at the movies John Wayne ramrodded twenty blockbusters from 1960 through 1976, winning an Oscar for True Grit (1969).
Older Gen Xers caught the tail end of things, but by the late 1970s the rise of sci fi had steadily pushed the genre into a retro niche and changing sensibilities were rendering overt yee-hahs unfashionable.
But that Somewhere West of Laramie spirit did not disappear – it went underground.
Western wheels take over
How better to indulge the embedded frontier myth than with an SUV or maybe a burly pickup? After all, they could be easily rationalized as sporty, outdoorsy, practical and even necessary in snow country.
Most Boomers would settle for a used car as their first set of wheels, but many hankered for a brawny 4X4 pickup, a tough Toyota Land Cruiser, a dashing Bronco or a cool little Jeep. This was especially apparent in the West, where household truck ownership already hit 23% by 1974.
And, after all, Boomers were the counterculture: in a world growing more conformist, they would kickstart a move away from responsible sedans and sensible eco-boxes to embrace more venturesome, youthful personas.
Together with Gen X, when the new millennium arrived they had driven SUV/pickup proliferation to the point where even the most suave import brands could join the escapist fun.
U.S. vehicle buyer decisions are still shaped by hidden socio-cultural dynamics in the Digital Age. Passed down to Millennials, and now Gen Z, adventurous, active western imagery lives on in the names automakers select for trucks and SUVs.
Mosey down automobile row and lasso your ride: Ford F150 Lariat, Jeep Wrangler or Laredo, Chevy Colorado or Tahoe, Dodge Durango – even the imports offer Tacoma, Sedona, Santa Fe or Tucson. Heck, there’s hardly a place left out west to name a truck for unless some greenhorn wants to throw a rope on Last Chance or Tincup.
Pioneers dissed in auto advertising
Consumers age 50+ buy over half of all new light vehicles sold in America – in fact, more than the three top EU markets, Germany, France and Italy combined.
The usual excuse is that older buyers are stuck in their ways, won’t switch brands and – anyway – their decrepitude creeps out younger prospects.
Reality check: the average ad agency creative is 28; fewer than 10% of all staffers survive to 50. Talented as they are, 20/30-somethings are not sufficiently fluent in the socio-cultural imprinting of Boomers and Xers to engage them authentically.
Still, we figure there must be a few mavericks out there willing to quit the adland herd and head for 50-plus territory. Just holler, we’ll help you blaze a trail to Laramie.