The Car Purchasing Morass

A blog about business and economics.
Dec. 12 2013 2:52 PM

The Car Purchasing Morass

157172278
It's a Buick. Because ...

Photo by Mike Coppola/Getty Images for OUT Magazine

Reading my colleague Amanda Hess on Mary Barra and her problematic relationship to the "car guy" concept in the auto industry and also Businessweek's excellent story on Barra's career, I'm left not for the first time scratching my head over basic practices in the automobile industry.

I'm not a car guy and in fact have never owned a car. But I do have a driver's license and a parking space (thanks, mandatory parking minimums!) and maybe I'll own one some day. Let's say it's a couple of years from now, I've got a kid, and my wife and I decide we need to add a car to our arsenal. We navigate over to the General Motors website and look at its search tool and find:

GM

Advertisement

We find ... a lot of car jargon. I feel like sensible consumer-facing brands do this the other way around. The Banana Republic men's website has a link labeled "sharp at work" that I think a man is supposed to click on in order to look sharp at work. You go to "dress shirts" to dress up and to "casual shirts" to dress down. This works because these are all words in the English language that people who aren't interested in fashion understand. Do I really want to spend almost $2,000 for a laptop? No, I don't, and since the laptop in question has "Pro" in its name I know that I—not being a pro—should be well-served by the cheaper one. Right?

So why doesn't GM tell me whether my hypothetical young urban family needs a hatchback/wagon or crossover? I don't know what the difference is.

Which is not to single them out for abuse. Toyota has invested in a very well-designed interactive car-matching tool that opens with this absurd and reductive question:

toyota

I dunno, some of each? Right? Like everyone else? And while GM insists on confusing me by asking which brand I want, Toyota errs in the other direction—no matter what you say, they won't try to sell you a Lexus. After all, I didn't navigate to www.Lexus.com so obviously I'm not in the market for Toyota's highest end cars. All in all, the marketing seems to assume that the target is big-time car enthusiast. Someone who's really interested in the internal brand separation strategies of major automakers and wants to master the different genres of automobile.

I'm open to the possibility that this is just a weird quirk of my Manhattan upbringing and normal people find car companies' self-presentation to be totally clear and logical. But I have a suspicion that car companies run by "car guys" may be a little bit excessively cocooned about how this looks to just regular people.

TODAY IN SLATE

Foreigners

More Than Scottish Pride

Scotland’s referendum isn’t about nationalism. It’s about a system that failed, and a new generation looking to take a chance on itself. 

What Charles Barkley Gets Wrong About Corporal Punishment and Black Culture

Why Greenland’s “Dark Snow” Should Worry You

Three Talented Actresses in Three Terrible New Shows

Why Do Some People See the Virgin Mary in Grilled Cheese?

The science that explains the human need to find meaning in coincidences.

Jurisprudence

Happy Constitution Day!

Too bad it’s almost certainly unconstitutional.

Is It Worth Paying Full Price for the iPhone 6 to Keep Your Unlimited Data Plan? We Crunch the Numbers.

What to Do if You Literally Get a Bug in Your Ear

  News & Politics
Weigel
Sept. 16 2014 7:03 PM Kansas Secretary of State Loses Battle to Protect Senator From Tough Race
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 16 2014 4:16 PM The iPhone 6 Marks a Fresh Chance for Wireless Carriers to Kill Your Unlimited Data
  Life
The Eye
Sept. 16 2014 12:20 PM These Outdoor Cat Shelters Have More Style Than the Average Home
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 15 2014 3:31 PM My Year As an Abortion Doula
  Slate Plus
Slate Plus Video
Sept. 16 2014 2:06 PM A Farewell From Emily Bazelon The former senior editor talks about her very first Slate pitch and says goodbye to the magazine.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 16 2014 8:43 PM This 17-Minute Tribute to David Fincher Is the Perfect Preparation for Gone Girl
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 16 2014 6:40 PM This iPhone 6 Feature Will Change Weather Forecasting
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 16 2014 11:46 PM The Scariest Campfire Story More horrifying than bears, snakes, or hook-handed killers.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 15 2014 9:05 PM Giving Up on Goodell How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.