From Upstream to Downtown: Car Ads Head to the City

06/03/2010 04:03 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Frontier on the craggy rim of a desert canyon. The Escape alongside a forest creek that cascades over glistening rocks. The Explorer traveling an endless and empty rural road. For several decades, the automakers have been transporting us to the country with images like these, but their fantasy wildernesses--much like the real ones--are disappearing. The cars they want us to want now are filmed in more probable but surprising locations: on skyscraper-lined boulevards, in bustling row house neighborhoods, and amid pulsing urban nightlife.

Car advertising has headed back to the city.

It has been stock ad messaging for automakers to invite us to imagine that when we buy one of their vehicles we buy an explorer's lifestyle--not exactly one of Emersonian retreats but at least of more getaways with the family--as the dad in one Toyota Sequoia ad put it, to venture "out into nature and make sure we expose ourselves and our children to, um, oxygen."

On some level, many of us bought into these images, and we bought the vehicles, even knowing that our time in them would be spent mostly on our daily grind between strip malls or crawl-commuting on potholed highways. We bought vehicles capable of traversing rushing gorges and pristine mountain passes, in wishful compensation, maybe, for the paving over of the actual paradise of many an American landscape.

Some luxury brands, especially European ones, never left the city limits and have long saturated their brand identities with urbane sophistication. Even some of these, though, like the Lincoln MKX, offered escape from the city, elevating the car high in the clouds and leaving the city in the distance.

But several new campaigns suggest that the industry more broadly is abandoning the wild, whether the marketed make is upscale or down. Take the Cadillac CTS campaign. It features sultry-voiced celebrities gliding down sexy city streets unimpeded by anything as banal as traffic. Ford launched its new Fiesta compact with a commercial set at a bustling intersection in a neighborhood of brownstones. Its driver is part of a hipster community of pedestrians, cyclists, and urban acrobats or parkourists catapulting off fire escapes.

It makes sense that as automakers compete in a recessionary market that is shifting toward sedans, compacts, and smaller utility vehicles, the myth of off-road adventures that sold so many behemoth SUVs and trucks is losing its touch. And the 2016 CAFÉ standards will consolidate this transition. But there may be some additional, more existential motivations.

The auto industry seems to be taking the longer view--advertising not for the recession but beyond. Our push in the past quarter century from town to suburb to exurb helped both automaker and consumer justify the need for outsized vehicles. But the automakers see the future--and the future is in the closer-in suburb, the walkable town, and yes, the transit-oriented city.

The automakers see the future, and it is for them a chilling one in which young people don't buy cars--at least, they don't buy as many cars or as much car as the previous generation did. They see American teens putting off getting their licenses (75% of 17 year olds had their license in 1978, down to just 49% in 2008) and twenty-somethings driving fewer miles (down 8% in just the last 15 years). They know that young people envision a future that is not in their parents' suburbs--a growing percentage of them want to live and work in revitalizing urban centers.

At the same time, the baby boomers are aging. At a life stage when they could be expected to buy the most expensive cars they will own, some are up and moving to communities where they can walk to the store and take the metro to the doctor. And they are making the move well before their kids decide to confiscate the car keys.

Just when some of us have decided we want to live in places where we don't have to be quite so dependent on the automobile, the automobile is trying to follow us there. The question is, can we be convinced we still need it?

Catherine Lutz, an anthropologist at the Watson Institute at Brown University, and Anne Lutz Fernandez, a former marketer and banker, are the authors of Carjacked: The Culture of the Automobile and its Effect on our Lives (Palgrave Macmillan).