Can a New Car Make Me Happy?
Which new car will make you happy? Is that even possible? It’s a serious question, which I get asked all the time. It’s also officially part of my ongoing jihad on bullshit.
Janet e-mailed me the other day. An exhaustive essay on choosing the right seven-seat SUV. This one paragraph in Janet’s e-mail caught my eye. She says:
Oh dear. I think Janet is in line for the bad news… It’s an interesting proposition: conflating the acquisition of a consumer product (a vehicle) with the elusive emotional state we know as happiness. Is such a thing even possible? It’s mostly a deep philosophical question, rather than an automotive one. But it deserves answering - because a lot of people do this. The new car is collateral in a consumer quest, a crusade of sorts.
It’s not just chicks who do this. Women are perhaps less inhibited about admitting it. At least the ones like Janet who ask me at AutoExpert.com.au. Men seem generally disinclined to state that they’re on this mission, with the objective being the prosecution of human happiness. But I suspect it’s right there, often unsaid, in the testosterone-fuelled half of the world as well.
The reason the question matters is that if the finance minister has just given you a ‘go’ for Operation New Car, you can expect imminently to fast rope out of a Black Hawk and into an ocean of bullshit. And not the discount stuff. The extremely high priced, A-Grade, export quality variety of bullshit we call advertising and marketing. Swimming in this sea, even briefly, it’s easy to see why consumers so quickly get fed up.
The central problem here is the disparity between what is promised and what gets delivered. The car industry manufactures just enough new vehicles to satisfy demand, but it is hyper-productive on the issue of bullshit.
See also: Can I Trust a Car Review? >>
EXACTLY WHAT IS BULLSHIT?
Most people know this - but they don’t really understand what bullshit actually is. People erroneously assume it’s just a colloquialism for lies. It’s not - lies and bullshit are very different. And bullsit is far more insidious.
Liars tell falsehoods. In order to do that, the liar must have a deep kind of respect for the truth, and then shoulder the burden of the extra cognitive and perhaps emotional workload required to understand what they believe to be true, and then actively to misrepresent it, seemingly without conflict with the facts. In this sense, the liar has a much more robust relationship with the truth than the bullshitter.
The bullshitter is a completely different kind of artist - hence the accolade for those who excel at delivery. Bullshitters are indifferent to truth or lies. They can draw freely from the truth and from falsehood in any proportion. Bullshit can luxuriate its way from being 100 per cent true to totally false, or be any proportion of the two between these extremes.
The salient mission of the bullshitter, which sets him apart from the liar, is to misrepresent what he is in fact up to - his enterprise. What he wants from you.
Princeton University Professor of Philosophy Emeritus Harry G Frankfurt is the father of contemporary bullshit theory.
More on Professor Frankfurt here >> and his impossibly excellent book On Bullshit >>
VOLVO'S MOST RECENT BS
Volvo has done an excellent job bullshitting recently, currently using the tagline ‘Makes Parenting Look, Easy’ to promote the new XC60.
Whether the XC60 makes parenting look easy or not is absolutely irrelevant. It’s the misrepresentation of Volvo’s objective that makes it bullshit. Volvo does not actually care about whether the XC60 bestows upon parenting the appearance of ease, or difficulty. Volvo simply cares about selling more XC60s, and nailing the right emotional triggers to do so.
Do you think there’s ever been even a single Monday morning board-level work-in-progress meeting in Gothenburg to monitor the flux in the appearance of parenting, following the launch of the XC60? Probably not, on the balance of probabilities. It’s absurd even to consider this as a serious proposition. And that’s why the tagline is bullshit.
To be fair, this Volvo parenting appearance bullshit just one minor ripple on the tsunami of car company bullshit that confronts the new-car buyer. The bullshit is prolific, insidious and exquisitely crafted, in line with the incredible monetary resources devoted to its manufacture and dissemination. And it is so difficult to resist - no matter how sophisticated you believe your resistance to be.
WHY BULLSHIT ULTIMATELY FAILS
The density of advertising bullshit has some effect on us all. The first world is dripping in it. It would be entirely presumptuous to suggest it does not have an effect on you. You are not above it, nor impervious to it. Yet there is some important feedback within the bullshit cloud that affects carmakers as well. They are not immune to it either. Carmakers’ own prize-winning bullshit affects them, profoundly.
The promise is out of proportion with the delivery. Therefore, the long-term effect of every vehicle being wrapped in bullshit is, although it’s good for getting buyers to part with their cash up front, it’s also setting that carmaker up for a fall. Advertising is excellent at igniting our vain desires and inflaming our passions, and then failing to deliver.
In the bullshit stakes, advertising is the Wonderbra of false promises. It all looks good, then you undo the clasp, and there are essentially no tits to fondle. Literally, a hollow promise. Unsubstantiated. I mean, you buy an XC60. After several weeks, you’re sitting around the dinner table. You just got back to your lukewarm roast after changing the baby’s nappy mid-course.
The odours of baby shit and roast lamb co-mingle in the dining room. You washed your hands twice and you can still smell it. The bill for the school fees is up there on the refrigerator, you haven’t had a decent root in a month, and your three-year-old chooses this reflective moment to debate the relative merits of broccoli consumption using the time-honoured mechanism of a temper tantrum.
You glance around. A quick stocktake. Parenting: Not looking all that easy. Do you even for a second consider calling the Volvo customer help line? ‘Hello, Volvo? Look, I bought an XC60 nine weeks ago, and parenting is still looking kinda difficult. Am I doing something wrong? Is this a known problem with the vehicle? Are you working on a fix? Is a recall likely?’
I hope they record the shit out of that conversation. It warrants preservation, for quality and training purposes. The core intellectual dissatisfaction with consumerism is the inherent disconnection between the product and what it promises. The XC60 simply cannot deliver what it purports to represent - an easy view of parenting.
Honda says, of the new Civic, ‘Fun to drive is in our DNA’. Ring the frigging Honda call centre and tell them it still sucks interminably to be stuck in peak-hour traffic in a Civic. Toyota says the new Hilux is “unbreakable”. Really? I could disprove that in about 30 seconds. I’d be happy to. Holden says the shitbox Cruze is able to (quote): “Make every day less ‘everyday’”. I’m tipping your life will be even more everyday if you make that mistake.
See also: Bad Cars of the Year >>
MORE UNDELIVERED BULLSHIT PROMISES
Ford says the Territory is the vehicle for: “Keeping Australia real.” It makes me wonder what happens to our wonderful nation’s underlying reality when the factory closes in a few months. Will Australia become imaginary? Find out on October 8. And my mates at Mercedes-Benz say, of the C-Class: “This changes everything”. As a point of uncontestable fact, if you buy a C-Class, the only thing that changes is the car parked in your driveway. Everything else will remain pretty much the same as it was ‘BC’.
See also: Top 20 Lemon Cars >>
IMPULSE, INSTINCT & OPINION: THE ENEMY WITHIN
Despite their logical ridiculousness, at a deep emotional level, these messages are very effective. It’s partly we consumers who are to blame for this. There is a very worrying trend away from critical thought, logical process, and robust analysis, and instead we appear to be heading directly towards a world where instinct, impulse and opinion are just as important. This is disgraceful. It doesn’t help.
Trust me on this - using instinct, impulse and opinion to buy a car is a mistake. Imagine hearing your cardiothoracic surgeon say: ‘Today I’m just going to do your bypass totally on instinct’ just before going under. Imagine the pilot landing a commercial jet, just on impulse - ladies and gentlemen, the captain speaking. Fuck it: I’m just gunna wing it - I’ve decided not to give a shit about the airspeed indicator and the checklist. I’m just gunna do it in the moment.
Opinion is interesting too. Everyone’s entitled to their opinion, right? Well, actually, no. Opinions certainly are not all equal. Some opinions serve merely to identify you as a card-carrying dickhead. Among them: vaccination is bad for your kids, they faked the moon landing, fluoride in the water is merely a tool for the elites cognitively to dumb-down the population, Queen Elizabeth the Second is really the ruler of the Lizard people, and buying a Holden Captiva is a really good idea.
You’re entitled to your opinion, but sometimes it just identifies you as a Muppet. And, as for giving both sides of the story equal airtime - many issues simply do not constitute a battle of two equal yet conflicted points of view. Some people think beheading noncombatants on video is a good idea. Thousands of people worldwide are of this opinion.
Some people think it’s a good idea to stone others to death for adultery, apostasy, or homosexuality. Surely those opinions deserve no airtime - no equality - I use them merely as extreme examples that opinions are not all equal under the sun. Believing you want a particular new car - being of that opinion - landing the aircraft on instinct - is not the same thing as objectively choosing the right car.
See also: Most Outrageous Carmaker BS on Wheels >>
FACT -vs- BELIEF
Believing a cheap Mercedes-Benz is a luxury car. That’s an opinion. You are entitled to it. But it would be a mistake to conflate this opinion with objective truth about the A-, B- or C-Class base-models. Believe what you want, but they are in fact nasty, cynically stripped-out shitboxes with few redeeming features apart from a notionally desirable badge.
WHAT A NEW CAR CAN PROMISE
At the absolute best, here’s what you can hope for from a new car: It could be a reliable form of transportation from A to B - in the context of the kinds of driving you do, from towing a three-tonne boat to driving a short distance to the train station every day. The epic transcontinental odyssey or the daily commute or the hardcore all-terrain adventurer. There’s a suitable vehicle out there for all those applications.
With the right car, you might also expect a reasonable level of technical and logistical support if you have a problem, and (doffing my cap to the intangible) you might expect it to constitute the right kind of status symbol or fashion accessory for you - or at least not to misrepresent your societal status downward.
You might also expect it not to depreciate like a stuck pig, and perform at or slightly beyond your expectation. These statements are as true for a Mazda2 as they are for a BMW M3. That’s about all a car can achieve on the logistical and even quasi-emotional front. If it does the job without letting you down, that’s an A-grade performance.
See also: How to Choose the Right New Car >>
However, were I you, I would not conflate the achievement of these aims: reliability, suitability, support, statement, performance and retained value, with happiness. That would be a bridge too far.
The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle devoted significant enquiry to the pursuit of happiness. In the succeeding 2400 years, nobody has been able to repudiate his conclusions successfully.
Big Greek A suggested happiness flowed from the lofty ideals of love, meaningful human connections, friendships that matter, and having a vocation that helps others. Despite what the automotive marketing departments promise, a car cannot hope to deliver on the core happiness promises of circumventing these major challenges of the human condition. Any suggestion otherwise is breathtakingly bullshit.
If you’re an especially shallow tool, you might convince yourself that others will regard you differently should they see you alight one day from your ‘everything changer’ (also known as the Mercedes-Benz C-Class) or the imaginary-Australia-banishing (but soon to die) Ford Territory. In reality, nobody except you really gives a shit what car you own.
So it’s interesting that the answer to Janet’s question is, accurately, ‘none of them can hope to make you happy’. There might be fleeting happiness surrounding the acquisition of that new car you’ve been lusting after. Guaranteed, this brief euphoria will not last as long as the new car smell. In a short space of time, it’s just going to be another car, and it won’t make even a small dent in your position on the happiness continuum.
BUT A CAR CAN AFFECT YOUR HAPPINESS
It’s even more interesting, perhaps, that the best you can hope for - the effect of choosing exactly the right car for you - getting it exactly right … the very best you can achieve - the most optimistic assessment - in the long-term - is absolute neutrality, in the domain of human happiness. It’s peripheral to the mission (if the mission is achieving a happy life).
However - and this is a pretty significant ‘however’ - the achievement of unhappiness is much easier. Simply choose the wrong car. Mission accomplished. An unreliable, unsuitable, poorly supported shitbox that depreciates faster than the Argentinian Peso, which performs poorly and makes you look like a loser. That’s pretty much a rock-solid guarantee of years of unhappiness right there. Unhappiness is easy. A car can absolutely achieve that.
I guess this is the fundamental asymmetry of the human condition. Achieving unhappiness is child’s play (every politician can do it), and yet happiness is ephemeral. The very best a new car can hope to achieve is not to constitute a speed hump on the way. If you want to get this right, you must engage your capacity for critical thinking, and get your shields up against the upcoming onslaught of marketing bullshit. It’s a war of attrition.