When Cars Assume Ethnic Identities
By Glenn Collins
Coming to a showroom near you for 2014: the first sport utility vehicle in its class equipped with a 9-speed automatic transmission. It’s also the first to offer a parallel-parking feature. And, in 4-wheel-drive models, the rear axle disconnects automatically, for fuel efficiency.
Oh, yes: its name is the Jeep Cherokee.
Hold on — wasn’t that model name retired more than a decade ago? Wasn’t it replaced by the Jeep Liberty for 2002?
Yet now, in a time of heightened sensitivity over stereotypes, years after ethnic, racial and gender labeling has been largely erased from sports teams, products and services, Jeep is reviving an American Indian model name. Why?
“In the automobile business, you constantly have to reinvent yourself, and sometimes it’s best to go back to the future,” said Allen Adamson, managing director of the New York office of Landor Associates, a brand and corporate identity consultancy.
Jeep, a division of the Chrysler Group, explained that its market research revealed a marked fondness for the name. The 2014 version, said Jim Morrison, director of Jeep marketing, “is a new, very capable vehicle that has the Cherokee name and Cherokee heritage. Our challenge was, as a brand, to link the past image to the present.”
The company says it respects changed attitudes toward stereotyping. “We want to be politically correct, and we don’t want to offend anybody,” Mr. Morrison said. Regarding the Cherokee name, he added: “We just haven’t gotten any feedback that was disparaging.”
Well, here’s some: “We are really opposed to stereotypes,” said Amanda Clinton, a spokeswoman for the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma. “It would have been nice for them to have consulted us in the very least.”
But, she added, the Cherokee name is not copyrighted, and the tribe has been offered no royalties for the use of the name. “We have encouraged and applauded schools and universities for dropping offensive mascots,” she said, but stopped short of condemning the revived Jeep Cherokee because, “institutionally, the tribe does not have a stance on this.”
So far, marketing materials for the 2014 Cherokee model have eschewed references to, or portrayals of, American Indians and their symbols. That’s a far cry from the excesses of past years, when marketers went beyond embracing stereotyping to reveling in it. Indeed, Chrysler’s restraint seems an indication of just how much things have changed.
For decades, American Indian tribal names have helped to propel automobiles out of showrooms. Return with us now to the era when Pontiac’s sales brochures carried illustrations comparing its 6-cylinder engines to six red-painted, feathered cartoon Indian braves rowing a canoe.
Or review Pontiac’s marketing copy, which proclaimed that “among the names of able Indian warriors known to the white race in America, that of Pontiac, chief of the Ottawas and accepted leader of the Algonquin family of tribes, stands pre-eminent.” Of course, the visage of the chief was appropriated as a hood ornament.
Many other tribes were adopted as marketing tools. Long gone is the Jeep Comanche pickup truck, sold in the late 1980s, along with the Jeep Comanche Eliminator.
Certainly, American Indian names are still in the market: consider Indian motorcycles, about to resurface under yet another new owner, Polaris Industries. And Chrysler’s full-sized S.U.V., the Grand Cherokee, introduced in 1992 as a larger version of the Cherokee and still a market leader. In fact, its success was a reason for the revival of the Cherokee name for a midsize S.U.V.
American Indians have hardly been alone in the cavalcade of automobile cultural stereotyping. In the 1950s, advertising for the Studebaker Scotsman didn’t actually use the word cheapskate, but prospective buyers were informed that “when you and your family sit in your thrifty Scotsman...this great Studebaker body cradles you, your family and friends in safety.” It should be noted, though, that the Scotsman featured cardboard door panels and its hubcaps and trim weren’t chrome-plated: they were painted silver.
While there is no indication that the General Motors Viking was discontinued in the early 1930s because of protests by outraged Scandinavians, it’s a certainty that no automaker’s copy writers would dare write today that “the development of the Viking car closely parallels the development of the Viking youth in attaining manhood,” where “only those best fitted for leadership survived to contribute to the strength and superiorities of the race.”
Moreover, in the Roaring Twenties there was no apparent feminist backlash against the Little Jordan Tomboy. The cover of its 1927 advertising brochure depicted a smart, stylish woman in jodphurs and knee-length boots, clutching a riding crop. The purple marketing prose stated that “I am the Little Jordan Tomboy,” with “a thousand miles of open road before my saucy nose.”
Also hard to fathom today is the Studebaker Dictator, “Champion of its Class,” discontinued after 1937, when the rise of Hitler and Mussolini gave the model name an unpleasant odor.
In the late 1920s, the quest for association with high-profile leaders led the Windsor Autoworks in St. Louis to shamelessly place a color portrait of the Prince of Wales on its 1929 brochure for a new vehicle, The White Prince. Buckingham Palace was not amused, and expressed its displeasure.
American Indians have long opposed derogatory sports-team labels and likened fans’ use of war paint to the derogation of African-Americans with blackface. The N.C.A.A. has forbidden the use of nicknames, as well as mascots, logos, signs and band uniforms that are “deemed hostile or abusive in terms of race, ethnicity or national origin.”
In 1994, St. John’s University in New York changed the name of its sports teams from the Redmen to the Red Storm. Also gone are the Miami Redskins and the Marquette University Warriors; the Southeastern Oklahoma State University Savages are now the Savage Storm.
The Washington Redskins have resisted; so have the Atlanta Braves, opposing a name change or the discontinuation of its tomahawk chop. But the Braves’ team mascots, Chief Noc-A-Homa and Princess Win-A-Lotta, have been remaindered.
Even aside from the use of an American Indian tribal name in the Jeep Cherokee, the risks are high in the introduction of any vehicle. Automobile experts estimate the cost of renewing a nameplate like Jeep Cherokee at more than $50 million.
Why, given these risks, return to a discontinued brand? “Coming up with new names is very expensive these days,” said Mr. Adamson, the brand consultant, explaining that trademark research, focus groups and legal due diligence can be costly. The growing quest for viable names — and the third-rail of stereotypical labeling — are possible explanations for the advent of such hard-to-spell monikers as the Volkswagen Tiguan, and the growing adoption of concocted names like Acura, Elantra, Infiniti and Lexus — as well as the proliferation of alphanumeric designations.
“New models have all of these three-letter-code designations that mean nothing to me,” said Stephen W. Hayes, a Manhattan automotive historian and a collector of printed auto memorabilia, of nameplates like MKX, RX 350, F-150, 328i, QX56 and GL450 that populate the auto world. “Companies don’t name their cars as colorfully anymore.”
Nevertheless, “just the name of a brand itself is one of the most powerful marketing tools you have,” Mr. Adamson said. “Automobile brands define who you are, and Cherokee summons up rich associations.”
The Jeep Cherokee was a winner from the start, introduced in 1974 as a sport utility vehicle with the latest gadgets. Recent market research revealed that “there was so much passion behind the Cherokee,” Mr. Morrison, the Jeep marketing director, said. “What was really interesting was that people’s fondness for the Cherokee was greater than that for Liberty.”
Giving the new Jeep its old tribal name may have seemed just another acceptable risk. “Names can be polarizing, and can cause controversy, so you have to be careful,” Mr. Adamson said, but opposition to brand names has become something of a national pastime. “Anytime you introduce a name, someone will be upset.”
A name that has zero associations is even more likely to sabotage a new model’s introduction. “If you have a name that offends nobody, then you end up with a forgettable brand” that won’t cling to the memory, Mr. Adamson said.
“So,” he said, “it just won’t be sticky.”