How Detroit And Boomers Killed The American Sedan, As Seen Through The Overton Window

By the time you’ve read this there may be no American sedans left 

Everywhere you look commentators are belatedly noticing the death of the traditional American 4 door sedan. It’s been a long goodbye.

The American family sedan has been the staple of U.S. auto sales for the better part of a century. But now it’s turning into an endangered species (CNN Money).

Ford Says Cars Lose Money, So They’re Gone (Automotive News).

The reason – the rise of SUVs and trucks – has been obvious ever since Boomer pioneers pushed them past the tipping point back in the nineties. But, since buyers over 50 are too embarrassing to allow anywhere near official marketing programs, the credit must go to the product itself:

The American sedan is dying. Long live the SUV (Bloomberg).

Automakers shift to SUVs as consumers steer clear of sedans (LA Times).

GM and FCA have tip-toed around the issue, but Ford has come right out and shouted from the rooftop of its Dearborn headquarters: SEDANS ARE TOAST!

When the company boldly announced it would finally address real-world consumer preferences by dropping all “cars” except for Mustang and the Focus Wagon, reactions were predictable. Spokesbots for the Winston Smith Gulag for Consumer Correct-Think scampered to the nearest NPR microphone to decry the decision as a sellout to the great unwashed at the expense of residents in low-lying coastal regions everywhere.

It’s not as if the writing hasn’t been on the wall for decades.

In 2000, truck-based light vehicle sales surpassed car sales for the first time – but it was all the way back in 1980, as Boomers entered the new car market in force, they really took off among trendsetters.

And the seeds were sown even earlier. Already, by 1970 many young suburban Boomers were beginning to moon over cool off-roaders and trucks of all types, from Broncos and Jeeps to dune buggies to surfer vans to bad-boy pickups fitted out to ferry dirt bikes to the desert and send fathers reaching for the baseball bat when Scooter came to collect Sue Ellen.

For the answer, look no further than the socio-cultural symbolism with which the Boomers were imprinted.

Every picture tells a story, don’t it

Until the mid-1960s, domestic car print ads often favored illustrations over photography. General Motors’ go-to partners for artwork between 1959 and 1971 was the team of Art Fitzpatrick and Van Kaufman.

Fitzpatrick also created poster art; here’s an example featuring the 1971 Pontiac GTO, one of many Pony and Muscle cars inspired by the Ford Mustang’s incredible success.

Back then, cool 20/30-somethings could actually afford fun 2-door cars like these. So take a look at the symbolism: the dude sports a Beatle hairstyle, the gal-pal wears a cowboy hat and – far out, man – this hip Boomer couple is hanging out in the desert with super-trendy off-roaders.

Well before automakers fully realized the off-beat, counter-culture appeal of truck world, especially Out West and Down South, it was already calling to younger prospects in the form of groovy-grotty wheels The Man would be sure to disapprove.

Fast forward a few years and our hip Boomer couple will be toting their young family around in a Ford Bronco. Born in the early years of the generation (1946-1964) they – and others who flaunted convention by fueling the import car surge – were role models for younger Boomers who would not enter the new car market until the late 1980s.

By then, with compact-but-pricey Euro products already embraced by Boomer yuppies, the conventional American 4-door sedan was beset by embarrassing failures to meet the challenges of post oil crises downsizing. The long slide towards a bland fleet car/airport rental status had begun.

Meanwhile, the hang-loose imagery of truck/van culture was co-opting Boomer imaginations coast to coast.

With a national fitness and health food movement taking off, it complemented the outdoorsy, back-to-nature mood of the era and re-energized Americana as a buying trigger.

4-Door symbolism: adult, sensible, authoritative and, um, dull

4-Door sedan symbolism goes way back to the Boomers’ parents, the Silent Generation whose buying decisions were greatly affected by their Depression and WW2 experience.

A thriving economy cajoled them to consume, and they sure did, but inner voices often cautioned them as well.

Back in the 1950s/60s – when America’s cutest generation was being imprinted – glitzy convertibles, sporty 2-doors and high performance V8s enticed shoppers to dealerships where good sense took over. Mom and dad would drive out in a sensible family 4-door or a stolid station wagon, often equipped with a thrifty 6-cylinder motor and a column mounted 3-speed manual shift transmission.

The money saved went for the optional garbage disposal or washing machine in that brand new tract home. Or maybe for the color TV the kids had been begging for. After all, nothing was too good for  America’s cutest generation (yes, we think it’s worth repeating).

Of course, not all 4-doors as were as squaresville as the ones mom/dad drove.

In the premium range, Cadillac and Lincoln reigned supreme as symbols of power, success and status – seen on the 6 o’clock network TV news and in magazines, ferrying presidents and corporate magnates to events of great moment.

Soon however, thanks to Boomer yuppies, Euro-cool imports would dislodge these American icons (How The Boomers Revolutionized The Luxury Car Market) to add a progressive patina of “intelligent choice” to their elite sub-set of the sedan category.

In time, triggered by evolving Boomer dynamics, the 4-door sedan eventually came to signal – in descending order of positivity:

  • Affluence, authority, prestige – if a premium import marque
  • Fun to drive – if a premium import sports sedan
  • Sensible, responsible, prudent – if a reliable Toyota/Honda
  • Adult, parental … and, now, grandparental
  • Value: for budget-conscious families who cannot afford an SUV
  • Basic: sales reps, corporate fleets, governments and rental cars

Unfortunately – and, by the way, grossly unfairly – American brand sedans have allowed themselves to be stereotyped as belonging in that last bucket.

How Boomers see the American sedan through The Overton Window

It turns out The Overton Window – brainchild of think tank thinker Joseph P. Overton – reveals Detroit marketers and Boomer rejectors were in unwitting cahoots in bushwacking the American sedan.

Overton explained that in every organization, society and tribe there is a continuum of discourse that ranges between two extremes.

In the mid-range are permissible topics – the Overton Window. Centered on the ruling “policy,” topics diverge towards opposing poles in steps:  popular to sensible to acceptable.

Beyond acceptable – a frontier that allows occasional exploration, while safely tethered to convention – lay the forbidden zones of radical and, gasp, unthinkable.

Overton’s theory also posits that the window can shift towards either of the forbidden zones if noisy, brave, outrageous and/or powerful enough voices force the issue.

Typically associated with politics – and we don’t do politics here – the concept works just as well for marketers.

Case in point: boxed in by imports – whether prestigious or bullet-proof reliable – and fun, active, rugged truck/SUV culture, the American sedan has slowly been assigned no-go zone status among Boomer taste-makers.

Yep, what could be more cool, sexy and prestigious than cars built to win the low-bid attention of corporate fleet buyers and purchasing department bean counters. Sure, right, gotta get me one of those!

But The Overton Window opens both ways: how Detroit views Boomers is just as devastating as the other way around.

How automakers see American Boomers through The Overton Window

The well-kept C Suite secret is that the median age of US retail customers for light vehicles is around 52. In fact, Americans aged 50-plus buy about as many new vehicles as Germany, the UK and France combined – 7.8 million versus 8 million in 2017.

However, except for occasional lip service, ever since the Boomers started turning 50 in 1996, auto branding gurus have been turning their backs on their best customers.

No kidding.

Marketing world – especially Madison Avenue, where the average age of creative department staffers is only 28 – is an intensely youth-oriented ecosystem steeped 18-49 demo group-think. The policy/popular/sensible delusion is that after age fifty consumers no longer switch brands or adapt. Also, they need their kids to help them figure out Instachat and Snapgram. Whatever.

It’s no surprise that managers over age 40 are terrified to suggest brand teams make serious investments in understanding the Boomers. With hotshot 30-somethings on the prod for that corner office, touting the 50+ space is the fast track to leaving to pursue other interests.

So, in automotive branding circles, advertising to customers over 50 is radical and unthinkable on steroids. Make that OMG RADICAL! and WTF UNTHINKABLE!

Ford – the fringe-radical auto company?

It’s worth noting that Ford, in addition to making the “acceptable” decision to dump sedans, has also dipped a cautious toe in the fringe-radical zone.

At the recent Chicago Auto Show, the company introduced its 2019 Transit Connect Wagon as targeting active Baby Boomers who might not be able to afford a traditional minivan or large crossover (Automotive News).

Ford has done its left brain homework on basic design features likely to appeal to a certain segment of Boomers, and the company’s official statements cite familiar AARP statistics. It remains to be seen whether the Connect can, er, connect with emotional side of the buying equation – you know, the pesky consumer right brain that can sink a whole market segment like 4-door American sedans.

Swingin’ Sixties references to this adapted commercial workhorse as the new Magic Bus leave one wondering, however.

In particular, the new model was exhibited in Chicago alongside a commercial cousin splattered with logos like Joe’s Plumbing or some such. Hopefully, reminding those  downmarket oldster prospects of their limited options was just a glitch.

But, well, radical is as radical does.

One thing is for sure: brands looking to grow share in a vehicle market the size of Germany, France and the UK combined will need Boomer experts and professionals who think the unthinkable for a living. But then, maybe we’re just being immodest

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