The answer, oddly enough, is not "An Obama ‘08 bumper sticker."
No, the answer to "What makes a Subaru a Subaru?" is "love."
In fact, the automaker now has an entire campaign devoted to the theme of "love" as the prevailing emotion evoked by its products. There’s even an ad on Youtube called "Love Letters" in which real Subaru owners read personal letters about their attachments to their cars.
The Subaru slogan struck a nerve with me from the moment I first heard it, and not because I drive a Honda. Rather, what bugs me is our cultural fixation on feelings as the basis for every sort of decision, from which car we park in our garages to which candidate we elect to public office.
As a society, we’re much less interested in what something does than in how it makes us feel. This is why a Subaru is all about "love" while a campaign for the Cadillac CTS featured a sexily clad Kate Walsh pondering the question, "When you turn your car on, does it return the favor?" Um…yuck.
If Thomas Paine made the 18th century famous as the "Age of Reason," American marketers and media must certainly be responsible for our current "Age of Emotion."
But what’s so bad about a culture that considers emotions first? Well, for starters, it generates questions at presidential press conferences such as New York Times reporter Jeff Zeleny’s now-famous inquiry of Pres. Obama, "What has enchanted you?" about the presidency.
Borrowing on that touchy-feely theme, this past weekend in a piece on Father’s Day, CBS’ Harry Smith asked the leader of the free world, regarding his childhood, "In this fatherless world, where did you learn to love?"
At the risk of sounding a bit repressed, I honestly don’t need to know about our president’s emotional life at this level. In fact, it makes me uncomfortable.
Thanks to our cultural fixation on emotions, researchers can now separate our feelings about certain people from our feelings about their actions. This is why polls show a majority of Americans still approve of Pres. Obama, but far fewer approve of his policies. Perhaps respondents are afraid of hurting his feelings if they disapprove of him based on their rational assessment of his work. Regardless, he still makes them feel hopeful and happy, all rational evidence about our economy to the contrary.
Based our media, it often seems like emotions are all there is. Indulging one’s feelings has somehow gained moral high-ground because feelings are something you can "be in touch with," while suppressing emotionalism for any reason – even a magnanimous one – is viewed as dysfunctional.
It used to be virtuous to curtail one’s emotions through temperance, and to respect the emotional privacy of others. But temperance doesn’t sell cars – or candidates, for that matter. Marketers of products and people and political platforms are all about getting us to feel something – "Subaru love," if you will – and then getting us to act on our feelings.
I’d like to think Subaru buyers are more emotionally mature than their car company believes them to be. When they say, "I love my Subaru," I’d like to think it’s shorthand for "it’s reliable…it’s safe…runs great…gets good gas mileage."
By hijacking "love," Subaru has reduced its buyers to a trite and emotionally immature lot, and quite honestly, they haven’t done much to uplift the idea of love, either.
Ah, but in the "Age of Emotion," love is everything. Reason, not so much.
Copyright 2009 Marybeth Hicks
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