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

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After 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 people over 50 are too embarrassing to allow anywhere near advertising depictions, industry “experts” only credit the product, not the buyers.

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 that sedans are toast.

When Ford 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 Gulag for Correct-Think scampered to the nearest NPR microphone to decry this as a sellout at the expense of climate-challenged residents of 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.

The seeds were sown even earlier. Already, by 1970 many young Boomer suburbanites were mooning over cool off-roaders and trucks of all types, from Broncos and Jeeps to dune buggies to surfer vans to bad-boy pickups ferrying dirt bikes to the desert and sending fathers reaching for the baseball bat when Scooter came to collect Sue Ellen.

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. Just 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 couple is hanging out in the desert with super-trendy off-roaders. Boss, man, boss.

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

By then, with compact-but-pricey Euro products 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  authenticity of truck/van culture was co-opting Boomer imaginations coast to coast.

With recreational, outdoors and fitness movements taking off, truck-based vehicles complemented the 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 whispered cautions as well.

In the 1950s/60s – when America’s cutest generation (us) was being imprinted – glitzy convertibles, sporty 2-doors and high performance V8s enticed shoppers to dealerships. At which point good sense usually took over: mom and dad would drive out in a sensible family 4-door or a stolid station wagon, often equipped with a prudent 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 their 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 network TV news and LIFE magazine ferrying presidents and corporate magnates to events of great moment.

In the 1980s however, thanks to Boomer yuppies, Euro-cool imports would dislodge these American icons to add a progressive patina of “intelligent choice” to their elite sub-set of the sedan category. These suave foreigners signaled affluence, authority, prestige plus superior performance and handling bred – according to the commercials – on autobahns and winding Bavarian mountain roads.

Over time, domestic 4-door sedans came to stand for, in descending order of positivity …

  • Sensible, responsible, prudent
  • Adult, parental … and, now, grandparental
  • Affordable for traditional budget-conscious families
  • Basic: sales reps, government fleets and rental cars

Unfortunately American sedans allowed themselves to be stereotyped as belonging in that last bucket.

Asian brands, however, offered smaller more fuel efficient models and avoided the geezerly grayscale sedan graveyard by projecting youthfulness, informality, zippy modernity and – above all – smart thinking based on bulletproof reliability.

American sedan seen through The Overton Window

It turns out The Overton Window – brainchild of think tank thinker Joseph P. Overton – reveals Detroit marketers and Boomer/Gen X innovators 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. Outside the ruling policy, topics open for discussion extend towards opposing poles in steps:  popular … sensibleacceptable.

In this system, acceptable represents a frontier that allows for occasional exploration while safely tethered to convention. But beyond the border lay the forbidden badlands of radical and, gasp, unthinkable.

Overton’s theory also posits that the window can edge toward the forbidden zones but only if noisy, brave, outrageous and/or powerful enough voices force the issue or if more daring competitors show the way.

Case in point: boxed in by import cars and fun, active, rugged truck/SUV culture, the American sedan slowly slid from “accepted policy” to the no-go unthinkable zone among Boomer/Gen X taste-makers.

Hey, what could be more cool, sexy and prestigious than cars stripped down to win the low-bid approval of fleet buyers and purchasing department bean counters?

Sure, you bet, gotta get me one of those!

But The Overton Window opens both ways: how Detroit views their best customers – people over 50 – is just as devastating as the other way around.

Boomers/Gen X seen through The Automaker/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, since the Boomers started turning 50 in 1996 and Gen Xers crossed over in 2015, 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 a myopic youth-oriented ecosystem steeped 18-49 demo group-think.

The Overton-style policy/popular 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 this year’s 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.

But 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.

Frankly, Ford’s hamfisted Swingin’ Sixties references to this neo workhorse as the new Magic Bus leave one wondering, however. Sounds more like a Millennial’s avatar fantasy than Boomer reality.

Not only that, but the new model was displayed alongside its tradesman sibling splattered with signs for Joe’s Plumbing or 24 Hour Lock & Key or some such.

Perhaps reminding downmarket oldsters of the limited options they face in their declining years 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 generational experts and socio-cultural professionals who think the unthinkable for a living.

But then, maybe we’re immodest. Try us and decide.

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