SUV Country Is Still Somewhere West of Laramie

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Gen X shares the blame for Millennials’ love of SUVs

Boomers set the pace in the 1970s and ’80s, but their Gen X kid brothers and sisters happily tagged along for the ride in the ’90s, Livin’ la Vida Loca.

By 2000, light trucks took half (51%) of U.S. new vehicle sales.

So when the Boomers’ own children, the Millennials, began driving they had been thoroughly imprinted: SUVs and trucks were undisputedly cool. Game over. The “car” share of the U.S. new light vehicle market in 2019 was just 28%, barely one third of the 1970 level (82%).

It all began somewhere west of Laramie.

Bucking conventional wisdom

It was 1923.

somewhere-west-of-laramie_blueCar guy Ned Jordan was introducing his flashy new model, the Jordan Playboy and making automotive advertising history with his breakthrough campaign Somewhere West of Laramie.

Long after the Playboy was gone, Jordan’s revolutionary approach would set the standard for emotion-based auto advertising down to today.

Focused on the personality of the car and its driver, he provided no stats, mechanical data or specs. Instead, he let that lean and rangy, steer-roping girl thrill prospects into showrooms.

Jordan sure wasn’t afraid to buck convention. He wasn’t afraid to use the word “girl” either: when he bucked convention, he really bucked it.

somewhere-west-of-laramie_long-copy

Why Laramie?

Because in 1923 Wyoming was part of a Wild West still vivid in the public memory, as close in time as the 1970s are today.

The last of the train-robbing James gang, Frank, had died just eight years back, Buffalo Bill Cody only six years ago.

Marshal Wyatt “OK Corral” Earp was now consulting in Hollywood, teaching silent screen cowboy idols William S. Hart and Tom Mix how real gunfights actually go down.

What Jordan understood was that the West symbolized adventure, action and, above all, freedom – so too did automobiles.

A century later, this symbolism still plays out in the auto arena, running in background as the socio-cultural programming of truck and SUV world.

Boomers and westerns: enduring imprinting  

Boomers were the last generation to grow up with westerns.

Wildly popular since The Great Train Robbery (1903), they had both super-sized to wide screen color movie epics and shrunk to fit mid-century television sets before which little Boomers sprawled, wide-eyed, on shag carpets.

In the late 1950s/early 60s over twenty western TV series ran weekly. The top-rated grabbed 30-40% of the total viewing audience. Only the Super Bowl does better today.

Gunsmoke (1955-1975), Bonanza (1959-1973) and The Virginian (1962-1971) kept the TV trail open; at the movies John Wayne ramrodded twenty blockbusters from 1960 through 1976, winning an Oscar for True Grit (1969).

Older Gen Xers caught the tail end of things, but by the late 1970s the rise of sci fi pushed the genre into a retro niche and new sensibilities rendered overt yee-hahs unfashionable.

But that Somewhere West of Laramie spirit did not disappear – it went underground.

Western wheels take over

How better to indulge the embedded frontier myth than with an SUV or maybe a burly pickup? After all, they could be easily rationalized as sporty, outdoorsy, practical and even necessary in snow country.

Most Boomers settled for a used car as their first set of wheels, but many hankered for a brawny 4X4 pickup, a sporty Land Cruiser, a dashing Bronco or a cool Jeep. This was especially so in the West, where household truck ownership was already 23% in 1974.

After all, Boomers were the counterculture. In a world steadily growing more settled and conformist, they would kickstart a move away from responsible sedans and sensible eco-boxes to embrace more venturesome, youthful personas.

Together with Gen X, as the new millennium arrived they had driven truck/SUV growth to the point that even the most suave import car brands could join the escapist fun.

U.S. vehicle buyer decisions are still shaped by hidden socio-cultural dynamics in the Digital Age. Passed down to Millennials, and now Gen Z, adventurous, active western imagery lives on in the names automakers select for trucks and SUVs.

Mosey down automobile row and lasso your ride: Ford F150 Lariat, Jeep Wrangler or Laredo, Chevy Colorado or Tahoe, Dodge Durango – even the imports offer Tacoma, Sedona, Santa Fe or Tucson. Heck, there’s hardly a place left out west to name a truck for unless some greenhorn wants to throw a rope on Last Chance or Tincup.

Pioneers dissed in auto advertising

Consumers age 50+ buy over half of all new light vehicles sold in America – in fact, more than the three top EU markets, Germany, France and Italy combined.

So why don’t auto advertisers specifically target their best customers? Fact is, they see them like the backward old coots who showed up as comic relief in westerns of yore.

The usual excuse is that older buyers are stuck in their ways, won’t switch brands and their grizzled decrepitude creeps out younger prospects.

Reality check: the average ad agency creative is 28; fewer than 10% of all staffers survive to 50.

Talented as they are, 20/30-somethings are not sufficiently fluent in the socio-cultural imprinting of Boomers and Xers to engage them authentically.

Still, we figure there must be a few mavericks out there willing to quit the adland herd and head for the 50-plus range. Just holler, we’ll help you blaze a trail to Laramie.

Boomer - neXt SM logo_MMOriginally published in 2017, we up-dated to welcome the 12 million more Gen Xers who have joined the Boomers in the 50+ space since then.

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