- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 15, 2001

High school guidance counselors, noble souls in a thankless profession, are currently feeling even less appreciated than usual. They are aggrieved, unhappy and resentful at Jaguar North America for a new commercial that they feel unfairly disparages them. The Montgomery County (Md.) Counselors Association even says it comes close to libel.

The ad doesn't accuse them of embezzling tax funds, drinking on the job, sleeping with students, or urging budding young Einsteins to choose careers in ditch-digging. It's much worse. The commercial shows a Jaguar racing down the road while a voice says, “Your guidance counselor said you would never amount to anything,” before uttering the devastating punch line: “Your guidance counselor drove a mini-van.”

The messages here are not hard to decode: 1) Jaguars are cool, and if you drive a Jaguar, you'll be cool; 2) Mini-vans are not cool, as demonstrated by the fact that your stupid guidance counselor, who never acknowledged your genius, drove one.

I have no doubt that there are some dweebs who work as guidance counselors, and that some of them own mini-vans. But let me be brutally frank: A dweeb who drives a Jaguar is still a dweeb. It's not like Peter Parker being bitten by a radioactive arachnid and suddenly acquiring the superhuman powers of Spider-Man. If you're a dweeb and you buy a Jaguar, you will undergo a profound change: You will go from being a dweeb to being a much poorer dweeb.

By the same token, if Jennifer Lopez drove to recording sessions and Oscar ceremonies in a Dodge Caravan, she would still be someone millions of females would like to be and millions of males would like to … uh, never mind. If Benicio Del Toro owned a 1981 Honda Civic with rusting fenders and no hubcaps, he wouldn't become uncool. On the contrary, battered 1981 Honda Civics would suddenly become the hottest thing around.

But some people, including a lot of those working on Madison Ave., have absorbed the idea that “image is everything” (which, naturally, originated as a line in a commercial). Whether that concept has sold many Jaguars, I don't know. But it has done a lot to propel people away from those much-maligned mini-vans and into sport-utility vehicles and pickup trucks, which have been marketed to carry superior connotations.

Chevy trucks, we are told, are “like a rock.” Jeep has a commercial in which a motorist arrives at home to find huge boulders blocking his driveway, but no problem: He drives right over them. When Nissan introduced a new hybrid truck last year, its ad agency came up with pitches designed to subtly appeal to the male psyche — such as “A 3,172-pound can of whup-ass,” and “100 percent testosterone, 0 percent estrogen.”

These lines sound like the perfect way to appeal to any man suffering from a severe testosterone deficiency — maybe they can include a supply of Viagra with each purchase? — but I suspect that's not how the copywriters meant it. The idea is to imply that rugged guys could be comfortable only in a rugged vehicle, and would no more drive a mini-van than they would wear frilly pink underwear.

From the ads, you'd get the idea that SUV and truck buyers are the kind of people who wrestle alligators for exercise and eat nails for breakfast. The truth is, the sort of people who buy SUVs are uncannily similar to the sort of people who drive … mini-vans. Most of them are reasonably well-to-do, middle-aged, married people with children.

Now, let the record show: Some people who drive SUVs do so because they think they're safer, or because they go off-road a lot, or because they need four-wheel drive to cope with deep snowdrifts. But most buyers, it seems, are motivated by more ethereal factors. They understand that they are about as likely to confront boulders in their driveway as they are to encounter a stegosaurus. But they want the Jeep anyway.

“The people who buy SUVs are in many cases buying the outside first and then the inside,” Honda executive Thomas Elliot told The New York Times last year. “They are buying the image of the SUV first, and then the functionality.”

People who choose mini-vans, by contrast, are more concerned with function, such as carrying people and cargo, and less worried that someone will think they're uncool. They apparently have trouble accepting the widely held notion that, as one marketing consultant put it, “cars are clothes.”

Cars may be clothes, but you can buy the rugged image for a lot less money at the nearest Army surplus outlet, and use the money you save not buying an SUV to get something of more practical value. Your guidance counselor could have told you that.

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