Cars exist due to the concept of self, so that's how they're promoted

Jordan B Peterson said in one of his Maps of Meaning lectures, that a collectivist society would not have invented the car. That is, a machine that takes you, only you, from A to B, and at the same time (given all the fossil fuels required) to hell with the atmosphere.

The psychological concepts here are that a cognitive universe which centres its thought patterns on the self, will accept, and now even expects, widespread use of personal motorised transportation. And that since we're very social creatures, advertising indicates we take it beyond mere convenience and into the realm of social standing.

Some car ads recognised the social inferences at least a century ago. Photo: Shutterstock.

Some car ads recognised the social inferences at least a century ago. Photo: Shutterstock.

As early as the 1920s, skilled copywriters realised that when advertising a personal vehicle they weren't so much selling you the car as they were selling you social acceptance or social status. That is, the approval of your peers, your current or a potential romantic partner, your family, and very likely the admiration of other people you've never met who merely see you with it.

Looking at one example from Rolls Royce printed in June 1926, it describes an elegant lady who has furnished her home in the finest things from around the world, spends hours getting herself ready for a ball, looks after her own financial affairs, and that when she drives or is driven, only a Rolls Royce "will be satisfactory in appearance and performance" to match her high social standing.

Since then, there have been many variations on fundamentally the same theme of what others will think of you. They include turning heads on the street, making you sexually desirable, or claiming that a particular style, brand or model is generally popular with everyone. Impressively, Chrysler's disarmingly-simple Hey Charger campaign of the '70s achieved all of these at once.

The ads may depict the driver with smiling friends or a happy family. They may even try to demonstrate that it's suitable for driving to a social venue in spite of being the exact opposite of what others turn up in, (like a hurriedly-washed 4x4 at a luxury hotel).

In other variations the social standing you'll get is more implied, with terms like luxurious, glamorous or stylish.

For a different demographic the vehicle in question may be rugged, tough, unstoppable or unbreakable. Blokes like to feel blokey around their peers and the ability to get away for the weekend gives you something to talk about on Monday. For women and kids too, sharing your recreational adventures can help improve your social standing.

A rather interesting variation was one ad Honda made for the Civic in 2017 when they depicted the 35-40 year old driver of the new model gaining the approval of their younger self (who was driving an earlier model).

Yet more variations have illustrated the vehicle is the latest, most up-to-date, modern, newest or most futuristic thing available, full of current or even "tomorrow's" technology whether it be the on-board gadgets, the power unit, the quality, the styling or the safety.

At one point, predominantly the 1950s and '60s, simply being quiet and smooth were big selling points. Both of these imply refinement, quality, comfort, and the idea that you won't be perceived as loud and obnoxious by those you would otherwise disturb.

Other implied variations are a little more tenuous, but they're still all about creating a positive perception of a brand or nameplate, thus the concept of social acceptance is also built into brand image and the reason why manufacturers strive to succeed in motorsport, or have their name associated with big social events be they sports, awards, festivals or anything else they feel befits their image.

After all of that effort by the manufacturer and their promotional department, we might also take it further at an individual level. It could be as simple as changing wheels through to a complete rebuild into a show car.

If you're not convinced that what others think of the vehicle matters, even for those that rely heavily on fleet sales, just look at the sales figures for the AU Falcon. It was better than the EL it replaced in every measurable way, but the styling meant sales shot down so sharply Ford might have been better off not bothering with the model update at all.

Sam Hollier is an ACM journalist and a motoring fanatic who builds cars in his shed in his spare time.