unit thirteen
SUV: Globalization, Environmentalism, and Consumption




cultural artifact: suv advertisements (print and television) & suv anti-ads

CASE STUDY: selling the suv

reading assignment:

  • juliet b. schor, "towards a new politics of consumption" in consumer society reader
  • dick hebdige, the gender of machinery (pp. 124-127) of "object as image" in the consumer society reader
  • keith bradsher, "introduction" to high & mighty: suv's (print ready file)

in class screening:

  • the overspent american , MEF


at the end of this unit you should be able to define these key terms:

  • frontier myth

additional resources:

case study guidelines for student presentations

external links:

frontline: rollover homepage

the detroit project

the detroit projects' realaudio anti-ads

the suv info link

"i want my suv" hayes reed on alternet

"SUVs don't make sense for the average driver. Well, no shit. But when did American cars ever make sense? We are the country that gave birth to the three-ton Cadillac, the five-room RV, the 200-mph Viper and now the Excursion all hideous vehicles in their own rights, to be sure, but also vehicles that inspire us. And, frankly, we need that.

We wear our vehicles like costumes, using them to project an image that usually has no basis in reality. In a nation of serene suburbs and cubicle jobs, driving an SUV says, "I am not boring. True, I'm going to work now, but later, when you're not looking, I will be whitewater rafting, mountain biking and climbing things. I am sexy and dangerous!"

Americans love SUVs because we are a nation of poseurs. We love to buy things that will never really have any practical application things like cowboy hats, pit bulls, Corvettes, assault weapons, etc. That we will never use them for their intended purpose is beside the point. The point is that they fulfill the need to pretend. "

(excerpt from hayes reed, "i want my suv")

the hidden life of suv's by jack hitt (essay on the semiotics of suv names)

"What's in a name? What do you make of a passenger vehicle called a Bronco? Or one dubbed a Cherokee? How about a Wrangler? Are they just chrome-plated expressions of sublimated testosterone flooding the highways? Check out the herd that grazes the average car lot these days: Blazer, Tracker, Yukon, Navigator, Tahoe, Range Rover, Explorer, Mountaineer, Denali, Expedition, Discovery, Bravada. Besides signaling that we're not Civic or Gallant, they indicate there's something else going on here.


Doo-RANG-Go. The true irony comes from the fact that this thoroughly market-researched word no longer has any core meaning. No one comprehends its denotation (Colorado town) but only its vague connotations (rugged individualism, mastery over the wilderness, cowboy endurance). The word does not pin down meaning so much as conjure up images. These names are only the end product of the intense buyer-profiling that the car companies and the marketing firms continuously carry out. By the time they make it to the lot, these cars are streamlined Frankensteinian concoctions of our private anxieties and desires. We consumers don't so much shop for one of these SUVs as they shop for us.


When GMC decided to launch the Denali (an SUV named for the Alaskan mountain), the auto-trade papers discussed the subtleties of that outdoorsy name: Even though most buyers "will never venture into territory any less trampled than the local country club parking lot," wrote Ward's Auto World, "the important goal of the Denali marketing hype is to plant the image in customers' minds that they can conquer rugged terrain. The metaphor of Alaska is particularly apt because SUVs, especially the larger of the species, depend on the myth that we have new frontiers yet to pave. Perhaps we're trying to tame a different kind of wilderness. Indeed, in an age of gated communities the SUV is the perfect transportation shelter to protect us from fears both real and imagined.


Once upon a time, Trailblazers, Explorers, and Trackers tamed the Wild West. Now, through the sorcery of focus groups, the bull-market gentry have brought the Pathfinders and Mountaineers back into their lives in the belief that they need to conquer the savage land one more time."

(excerts fromjack hitt "the hidden life of suv's" )

frontline's suv links

suv satire page

suv menace