What kind of future do we want to live in? While that question gets asked by planners and futurists in an abstract and technical way, some of the most powerful and interesting conversations about our future aspirations are reflected in the mass media. Lately, we’ve been struck by the visions embedded in recent television commercials. Some of these visions are explicit, but others are a bit more subtle.
Earlier we took a close look at one car maker’s image of what a future city might look like. Ford’s vision, prepared for the Consumer Electronics Show, was a computer-generated video simulation of what it might be like in the near future, and then sometime later, to live in a city full of autonomous vehicles. It was undoubtedly developed by the company’s engineers, and was used to polish the cred of the auto companies with the tech community and investors.
Until that future arrives, big auto companies have to survive, as they always have, by selling cars today. The world’s largest automaker, Toyota, released a new television ad to try and sell its vehicles. And implicit in its commercials is another view of the future (or perhaps the present) of what cities and city living should be like. And its actually much more interesting, compelling and human than Ford’s.
The commercial is nominally a pitch for Toyota’s Corolla, but if you watch the video–embedded below–its apparent that the car is really just a bit player in a thirty-second drama that’s really about what millennials do to achieve personal fulfillment. The Corolla is Toyota’s entry level vehicle and is the world’s largest selling car model (nearly 50 million units to a mere 21 million for the Volkswagen Beetle). Like all car makers, Toyota aims to build a lifelong relationship with consumers, starting them out with a little Corolla in their twenties, graduating to a Camry as they get older, and then a Sienna minivan when they have kids. And if they’re successful, in later life they’ll graduate to a Lexus. So the purpose of advertising entry level vehicles is to establish an affinity with these customers early on. That’s not an easy task given the much lower rate at which young adults are getting drivers licenses, driving and buying new cars.
“You don’t own me” is a miniature drama. Its protagonist is a young twenty-something chef (picture a tattooed aspiring Top Chef contestant). In the opening scene of the 30-second commercial, she’s shown cooking away in an established tony restaurant, and then having her signature creation summarily tossed in the trash by a dismissive–and considerably older and male–head-chef). She immediately quits, throwing in her apron, and driving off in her Corolla, singing along to Leslie Gore’s 1964 hit “You don’t own me.”
In act two of this mini-drama there are a series of vignettes of other young adults. An African-American woman is ditching her dress shoes and tying on hiking boots at a state park, a peloton of cyclists pedals by, female roller derby players repeatedly crash into one other on an oval track. A group of young men is playing basketball. Trade magazine CampaignLife highlighted how the ad and song resonate with millennial aspirations:
The ad features young people triumphantly, you might even say defiantly, singing along to the song as they go about various activities like bonfires, group bike rides, and roller derby contests. Created by Saatchi & Saatchi LA, the ad’s best performance is among 21- to 35-year-olds, and interestingly displays stronger Desire and Relevance scores among males in that age group.
Strikingly, for a car ad, the activities highlighted in these vignettes mostly don’t involve driving. They’re set in urban spaces (parks, playgrounds, bike paths). The car and its technology are essentially featured only once, in passing, as a lane alert signals a group of singing passengers that they’ve drifted across the centerline.
The final act this little drama shows our young chef cooking in her new food truck, and dishing up one of her creations to another millennial standing outside. She’s been transformed from oppressed and disrespected, to an independent, creative entrepreneur. No one owns her.
Of course, this is a fable: most twenty-something start-up food truck owners would probably be maxing out their credit to make the payments on even a second-hand food truck; it’s likely that if they owned a car at all (rather than relying on their bike as a principal means of transportation) that they’d buy that used as well.
Its worth reflecting how different this drama is than Ford’s CG vision of cities of the future. Toyota appreciates that its potential customers are people who are more interested and engaged by all of the things that they can do in cities when they’re not in a car.
Unlike Ford’s futuristic vision, Toyota’s vision of a slightly idealized present focuses on people and how they live. Fittingly, the tag-line of the commercial is “Toyota: Let’s go places.” The emphasis here is on “places.” And ultimately, that’s the difference between the Ford (and other techno-futurist) view of transportation and the view offered here. We attach value to the places we want to be. What we value in this “near” future is not being owned; being independent and engaging with other people.
Superficially, one might see a subliminal car-sharing message embedded in this ad: “you won’t own me” is essentially what the cars of the future are saying. Instead, there’ll be some combination of fleets of autonomous vehicles, along with much more widespread availability of “on-demand” rental cars like Car2Go, ReachNow and ZipCar. The more serious issue is that a key problems with cars, and our auto-dependent transportation is that in a sense “our cars do own us.” In many places its simply impossible to be a first class citizen without owning one. “You don’t own me” has been a kind of feminist anthem on and off over the years, and maybe that same slogan, applied to privately owned cars, should be a guiding principle for urban planning.
There’s a subtle but profound shift in what’s being sold here: Ultimately this moves us in the direction of transportation as a service. And transportation is just a means to an end (or set of ends) rather than an end in itself. Its good because it enables us to get and do the other things we want. It ceases to be an object of status or consumption good in its own right.
As we think about the future, and the kind of cities we want, maybe we should spend less time fetishizing modes of transportation, and more generally technology-and think about the kind of places we want to be in the the kind of experiences that they enable. Crafting the right kind of narrative about the cities and the lives we desire is an indispensable part of creating a better future.