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Hummer catered to humans' primitive instincts

As the sun sets on our fascination with sport utility vehicles, it seems a good time to look back at how it all got started — with a promotional campaign so cynical it could have been cooked up by a tobacco company.

One of the SUV's masterminds was a French-born marketing guru named Clotaire Rapaille, who had a contemptuous view of consumers, especially Americans, Keith Bradsher wrote in High and Mighty, his 2002 book about the SUV phenomenon.

The buying public is guided by its most primitive urges, which Clotaire called "reptile brains.'' It didn't matter that life in the 1990s was safer than ever, Clotaire said. Americans had become obsessed with crime and danger. They didn't care about performance or gas mileage, he told auto executives. They wanted scary-looking SUVs, the bigger the better, with elevated cockpits and fang-like chrome grills.

The executives not only listened; they pushed these vehicles even after their own marketing research showed they catered to and encouraged customers' worst impulses.

"Who has been buying SUVs since auto makers turned them into family vehicles? … Above all, they tend to be self-centered and self-absorbed, with little interest in their neighbors or communities,'' wrote Bradsher, the former chief of the New York Times Detroit bureau.

The ultimate "reptile-brain" vehicle, the Hummer, officially became a dinosaur two weeks ago, when General Motors said it would eliminate or sell the brand. The announcement probably would have been a bigger deal had Hummer sales not been in decline for years.

They are definitely scarcer than they once were, as I realized when I went looking for one Tuesday in the vast parking lots near Mariner Boulevard and State Road 50 in Spring Hill.

Having just read up on Rapaille, I half expected Hummer drivers to have scales and forked tongues. But Earl Bishop, 31, wasn't like that at all. The owner of a pump service company in Brooksville, he was personable and gracious enough to let me sit down with his family at Chick-fil-A.

His main reason for buying a Hummer — the safety of his wife and two children — was perfectly understandable. Beyond that, it was clear he and I had much different ideas about personal vehicles.

I was taught that cars are for transportation, not show, a philosophy I carry to such an extreme that my drab, efficient, unwashed cars are an embarrassment to my wife and children. I'd hate to hear what market researchers say about buyers like me.

Bishop bought his Hummer H2 pickup in 2006, partly "because you don't see them every day." It cost $62,000, and he put another $15,000 into custom wheels, a stereo, a roof-mounted satellite system for the truck's four television sets and modifications to improve its gas mileage from 9 to 12 miles to the gallon.

He and I also, apparently, rely on different sources of information. He didn't worry much about fuel economy, he said, because gasoline only accounts for 15 percent of our crude oil consumption. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, it's more like 46 percent.

He didn't like hearing about the demise of the Hummer brand because "I was hoping to get a new one,'' he said. "I'm kind of mad.''

That's yet another way we're different. I'm thrilled.

Hummer catered to humans' primitive instincts 05/07/09 [Last modified: Thursday, May 7, 2009 8:46pm]

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