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High & Mighty: SUVs
SUVs propelled American carmakers to unparalleled heights to prosperity, but at a huge cost to the nation.

High and Mighty: Reptilian Mind

Part one of series reviewing Keith Bradsher's controversial exposé on SUVs.

By EVWorld.Com

Editor's Note: This is the beginning of a series focusing on Keith Bradsher's High and Mighty: SUVs: The World's Most Dangerous Vehicles and How They Got That Way This article is based on Chapter 6, "Reptile Dreams."

Sixty-one year old Frenchman Clotair Rapaille is an auto industry "guru" of sorts. European and American carmakers trust his uncanny instincts about future vehicle trends and buyer motivations. And when it comes to the phenomenal success of the sport utility vehicle in North America, Rapaille's insights are chilling.

Born just two months before the Nazi invasion of France in 1941, Rapaille's earliest childhood memory is of an American tank and the "big American with a net on his helmet and flowers [who] took me on the tank and gave me chocolates and gave me ride," he recounts to Bradsher.
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After working as a consultant for Renault and Citroen, he moved to America in 1979 to become one of the industry's leading market researchers, one who specializes in psychoanalytic techniques, especially those propounded by Carl Jung. He developed an especially close relationship with Chrysler and with Bob Lutz, the hard-driving head of the company's light truck division at the time. Both men shared a common, "gut" instinct about that kind of vehicles would appeal of American buyers.

For the Jungian Rapaille, American obsession with the SUV is seated in the deep, dark reaches of the subconscious mind. The Frenchman sees the human mind divided into three levels of activity. The cortex makes intellectual assessments about a product. The limbic produces the emotional response.

Then there is the most "primitive" part of the brain thought to have been inherited from our reptilian ancestors that is concerned purely with survival and reproduction. It is this part of the human brain Rapaille sees as the silent driver of the SUV craze in America. And it is this insight that serves as the cornerstone of all marketing and sales pitches for sport utility vehicles.

"With the detachment of a foreigner, Rapaille sees Americans as increasingly fearful of crime. He acknowledges that this fear is irrational and completely ignores statistics showing that crime rates have declined considerably. He attributes the pervasive fear of crime mainly to violent television shows, violent video games and lurid discussions and images on the Internet, which make young and middle-aged Americans more focused on threats to their physical safety than they need to be." [High and Mighty, pg 95].

"'There is so much emphasis on violence -- the war is every day, everywhere,' he said in an interview two weeks before the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001."

"For Rapaille, the archetype of a sport utility vehicle reflects the reptilian desire for survival. People buy SUVs, he tells auto executives, because they are trying to look as menacing as possible to allay their fears of crime and other violence. The Jeep has always had this image around the world because of it its heavy use use in war movies and frequent appearances in newsreels from the 1940's and 1950's, and newer SUVs share the image."

"'I usually say, If you put a machine gun on top of them, you will sell them better. Even going to the supermarket, you have to be ready to fight.'"

Like any good market researcher, Rapaille conducts endless focus groups and what he has learned should concern us all.

"The answers in these consumer groups have persuaded Rapaille that American culture is becoming frighteningly atavistic and obsessed with crime. He cites as further proof the spread of gated communities and office buildings protected by private security guards, together with the tiny but growing market in the United States for luxury vehicles with bulletproof armor. 'I think we're going back to medieval times, and you can see that in that we live in ghettos with gates and private armies. SUVs are exactly that, they are armored cars for the battlefield.'"

Keith Bradsher observes that this desire for a sense of protection is what also drives SUV design styling. The whole idea of the SUV is to make it big and menacing. Even design cues like the drop-fendered design of the Dodge Ram pick-up or the Durango's front grill are intended to mimic the look of predators.

"'A strong animal has a big jaw, that's why we put big fenders,' Rapaille says."

Even more primitive or perhaps savage is yet another unspoken rationale for owning an SUV, the willingness to put other people at risk rather than themselves in a crash situation.

"'My theory is the reptilian always wins,' he said. 'The reptilian says, If there's crash, I want the other guy to die. Of course, I can't say that aloud.'"

So, what kind of car does Rapaille drive?

He owns a Rolls Royce and a Porsche 911. He thinks SUVs are too tall and he is terrified of the prospect of them rolling over. He believes they are cumbersome and lack the agility, responsiveness and stability that he favors in his Porsche 911.

The man who identified the most basic of human instincts and helped the auto industry exploit it to unimagined profitability, is himself afraid of SUVs.

Times Article Viewed: 6319
Published: 12-Oct-2002

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