As new fall models shimmer on car lots everywhere under October skies, I indulge in a seasonal fascination. Petrol hogs and oxygen foulers they may be, but what a dandy way to find out who marketers think we are. Take the Pontiac Vibe. Now there's a word I hate. "Vibe" is a word used by icky New Age guys trying to get you in the sack for some Tantric sex and women who take a few yoga classes, then lecture you about spirituality. It's a gross word that represents all that is pseudo-spiritual about North America. It's only fitting that after serious research and careful consideration on the part of Pontiac, it should be the name of a car.
When I was a child in the 70s, my parents owned a car called the Pontiac Parisienne. I don't remember much about it except that it was blue, but I like to imagine that it came with a free baguette and the exhaust smelled like Gauloises. Instead of unleaded it would run on red wine, and if you listened carefully to the hum of the engine you might hear the faint murmur of whispered eroticisms mingling with the smoky voice of Edith Piaf.
Admittedly my parents, being the type of people they are, bought it for its performance and dollar value rather than for the fact that, if it were a real woman, she would always wear matching lingerie.
Consider the Rolls Royces of the earlier part of the 20th century: the Phantom, the Silver Ghost. They were cars that appealed to those who considered themselves men of mystery (sorry ladies - we weren't buying too many cars back then). Then there was the Continental - subtle yet sophisticated.
There were less appealing names like the Frazer Nash Chain Gang (1935). Add a little prisoner chic to your life! But cars have been named after mysterious places of fabulous riches like the Cadillac Eldorado and real places of fabulous riches like the Chevrolet Monte Carlo. There have been trends of predatory animal names like the Buick Wildcat, strong ones like the Ford Bronco or strong and well hung like the Ford Mustang.
Some car names are nonsensical. I don't know what Epica (Chevrolet) is supposed to mean. but it sounds like something I don't want to catch - "I can't come out. My Epica is flaring up and the doctor recommended I stay in and watch Ben Hur."
The Vibe is Pontiac's desperate bid to appeal to a hip young demographic. The print ad for the Vibe features a sexually ambiguous male wearing a red shirt and a female standing behind him. She might be his girlfriend or his stylist - ambiguous and noncommittal like the name. And doesn't that just say so much? Like, whatever.
"Cars have three types of names," explains Nasseem Javed of ABC Namebank. He's an expert at coming up with successful names. "Seventy to 80 per cent are alpha-numeric with dashes and slashes like AZ40 and LG3. The other 15 to 18 per cent are dictionary words like the Fox, Lynx and Neon, but only 1 or 2 per cent will have the distinction of the Mustang, Corvette, Mercedes. Youth so far have responded to alpha-numeric combinations.'
Hmm, I wonder if that has anything to do with hiphop naming conventions - think D12, 2Pac, DMX. "The problem is that in the long run these numbers never survive. They keep on changing, and you can never tell the difference from one to the other.'
Toyota's hip new car is the Matrix. You may have seen the slick animated commercial. It's essentially the exact same car as the Vibe but with different aesthetics. Both Pontiac and Toyota need to recapture the hearts of the younger demographic from companies like Kia and Hyundai, who offer those darned affordable, high-performance cars.
The Matrix. What a dumb name. Who would name a car after a movie, and such a stinky movie at that? I mean, sure, there were some great special effects and stuff, but what a hokey story line. Oh my God! What's real and what's not? How original. And how did they write that script? Were they sitting around in a Chinese restaurant at 3 in the morning opening fortune cookies? "There is a difference between knowing the path and walking the path.' Duh.
But the film was a huge sensation, and owning the car might make people feel all cool and sci-fi and shit. But no! According to Toyota's Laura Lang, in a 2002 article in Strategy Magazine, the name was chosen after the movie but had nothing to do with it.
Maybe it was named for the Merriam Webster definition: "a rectangular array of mathematical elements that can be combined to form sums and products with similar arrays having an appropriate number of rows and columns." Or my personal favourite: "the thickened epithelium at the base of a fingernail or toenail.' In any case, what a lucky coincidence.
These names, says Javed, are not brilliant. "In a focus group Vibe may be very nice, but when the car is a little bit old and starts to vibrate, the name is no longer so attractive. The 'Matrix' kind of names come and go.'
But since there are jillions of cars on the market with more than acceptable performance levels, it's all about the struggle to create a hip brand image. Ennio Longo, automotive industry analyst for Maritz Research Automotive Group (you just know he's smart - look at the length of that title), explains, "Nobody wants to drive what their father drove unless their father drove a Ferrari. A lot of people in their 20s and 30s grew up with their parents driving Japanese cars. Toyota used to be a hip brand 20 years ago but is now associated with people who are in their 50s. Toyota wants to give that brand of the solid, safe, reliable vehicle a different image.'
But aren't we more savvy than that? Well, it appears so. "The more you try to market to somebody directly, specifically to younger buyers, the more they'll resist,' he says. Other attempts to hippify are the Honda Element and the Scion ("a detached living portion of a plant joined to a stock in grafting"). Also by Toyota, Scion is a brand rather than a model, perhaps an attempt to distance itself from the undesirable Toyota name, which has one of those online communities on its Web site.
Quite often, says Longo, what happens is these cars appeal to an older crowd trying to recapture their youth. "If you look at the people driving the Matrix or the PT Cruiser, another car targeted at a younger demographic, you'll find that they're not part of the target group," he says.
I sent unlabelled photos to a friend and asked him to tell me which he thought were the ones meant for our demographic. He picked the Pontiac Sunfire Coupe and couldn't decide on another, saying that both the Matrix and Vibe looked like family vehicles.
It's sad that car companies have to be so obvious about courting the youth buyer and sadly hilarious that Vibe and Matrix are the words that they feel represent this group. They're not the absolute stupidest names on the planet, however.
Have you heard of the Venturi Fetish? Awful name, really cool-looking car.