You Are Not Your Car

There’s a disturbing culture of car ‘snobbery’ in this country that I’d like to blow the lid off of.

I know a guy who exemplifies this burgeoning trend. This young chap insists on owning the latest model of vehicle from the luxury car manufacturer he loyally subscribes to. Not content to hang on to the perfectly operational and still very handsome car he has worked so hard to pay off, he rushes off to apply for finance from a bank to purchase the latest incarnation of the same model he’s about to trade-in (at a loss), despite the fact that the ‘new’ model only boasts a few design tweaks and several minor upgrades. And so, just as he’s managed to unburden himself of the taxing monthly installments for his previous set of wheels, he binds himself (yet again) to a financial institution – not to mention an insurance and satellite tracking firm – for a further 5 years of his young adult life.

It’s a financially crippling pattern of behaviour for someone with his income.

It’s not that he’s that much of a car enthusiast or hobbyist. Sure, he’ll rattle off some of the new car’s specs. He’ll enthuse about the size of the engine and the alloy wheels, the LED daytime running lights or the iridescent paintwork – but he doesn’t really know too much about what goes on under that boldly monikered hood.

So I ask him, “What was wrong with the old car?”

He gives me some regurgitated car salesman’s pitch about value retention and saving on maintenance and running costs. He even grasps at the whole ‘saving the environment’ rationale with the marginally lower CO2 emissions of this new car.

I listen as he tries to convince me (and himself) that this was a perfectly sensible thing to have done. He pretends not to notice my raised eyebrow as he continues to talk himself into thinking he’s made a sound and prudent “investment”.

Oh really?

An “investment” in a depreciating asset strikes me as being a misnomer. I mean it’s not like he’s purchased a rare collector’s item. There are literally thousands of cars just like his on the road – all of them subject to the same precipitous drop in value once driven off that gleaming showroom floor.

“Got any other investments?” I ask.

I watch his arms fold as he shakes his head. His eyes glaze over as I ask him about things like “fixed property”, “savings” and “retirement”.

I can tell when I’m losing my audience – and this guy was tuning out everything I was saying at a speed that would rival that of his new car!

“Dude, you sound just like my father!” he says dismissively.

“I’ve got an even better one for you… I sound just like my father!” is my riposte.

But there’s a big difference between how my late father and I would put forward our arguments. Dad used to say things like “Don’t do it because I said so!” or “Trust me on this one.” And that would be where his counsel would end.

No further explanations. No what’s the why‘s. No insightful counters to my “how come?”

Would I have listened anyway? Probably not. I suspect I would have tuned out too. Fantasizing, instead, about pulling up curbside at some hip hotspot in my shiny new ride.

Yeah!

Come on! In a world of ‘instant’ everything, are you seriously going to expect some young person to delay gratification? To practice restraint, sensibleness and moderation?

Yawn!

We want what we want, right? When we covet something, it’s hard to exercise judiciousness.

But there’s more at play here…

I know what this guy’s real story is. He’s basically insecure. He won’t admit it of course, but he’s so concerned with appearances and what others will think of him that he willingly and continually ‘enslaves’ himself in a vicious cycle of debt so he can look the part of a successful somebody. It’s ironic that a symbol of freedom like a car should be such a prison and symbol of oppression!

Naturally I don’t tell him any of this. He’d just become defensive and obstinate.

It’s hard to present an alternative choice to someone once they’ve set their heart on something. It’s very likely that they’ll resist your ideas and suggestions. It’ll just sound like a lecture or a speech. They’ll nod at everything you say, but very little will be allowed in. Besides, it’s their prerogative to want to feel independent and in control of their lives. They must to be free to make their own choices.

But, present the idea that those choices might have already been made for them by others – and you’ve got a possible way in.

I say to this guy, “You know you’re being played, right?”

“What do you mean?”

I’ve got his attention now!

Of course, he’s no chump – so my assertion discomposes him.

He asks for an explanation as he shifts uncomfortably in his chair.

And then I let him have the proposition I wish my father had put to me…

It goes something like this:

Of all those impressive car ads that sell exhilaration, adventure, freedom, practicality or economy, there’s one that is particularly persuasive and insidious…

It’s the one that sells “status”.

You know, the ad for an upmarket sedan or sports car that usually culminates in a tag line like “You’ve arrived!”

And why is this particular brand (forgive the pun) of advertising so effective?

Because it targets our insecurities and preys on our need to show to the world that we’re doing well for ourselves. It speaks as much to our desire for approval and acceptance as it does to our appreciation of a fine piece of automotive engineering. It connects with that unspoken wish to be one of the cool set – which is touted as an elite and exclusive club – with the right car being just one of the supposed buy-ins or assurances of membership. It’s that unconscious yearning to ‘fit in’ and stay in the loop that allows us to become so hooked and enticed by all those beautiful images leaping off the screen or page.

Many would call these ads harmlessly ‘aspirational’ – but to the middle classes it’s a nagging reminder that it’s time to upgrade to what the Joneses will no doubt be driving.

Car companies and ad execs know this – and they, along with the media, push all those insecurity buttons to get us to part with our hard earned cash for something we don’t really need to buy quite yet.

It’s a conscious manipulation – but we don’t recognize it because it’s seductively dressed up as empowerment.

“Congratulations! You’ve arrived!”

You can’t be too mad at them and their clever campaigns. They’re just doing their jobs and serving their interests.

But know that they’re tapped into your hopes, fears, desires and insecurities. They’ve done their homework.

Now do yours.

A couple of years ago, I was reading up on the impending release of a premium marquee’s new sports coupé. ‘New’ being a highly debatable term – as this model’s interior and underpinnings were identical to the outgoing model’s. All they did was give it a new face and backside. “1100 new components”, proudly proclaimed the press release!

Surely no-one is going to fall for that I thought!

Clearly the manufacturer anticipated a similarly skeptical reception from prospective buyers – because they sweetened the deal by throwing in, as standard, a very costly piece of tech in the form of an integrated infotainment/sat nav system – as well as a host of other cool bonus features.

Clever. Young buyers would probably be tempted by all those ‘freebie’ bells and whistles.

But when the new vehicle was eventually released in South Africa – with a hefty price tag – all of those promised ‘standard’ specs were, in fact, only offered as costly optional extras. Apparently those much-hyped incentivizing bonus features were only for models sold in European and American markets.

I’d hoped that South African car buyers would be smart enough to not purchase what was basically a face-lifted old model at a new model price…

But many of them did!

Though I shouldn’t have been so surprised.

One of the many ugly legacies of apartheid is that it has left large swathes of our population with a massive inferiority complex. It’s manifest in what motoring magazines in this country frequently refer to as consumer “snobbery” and “discernment”. It’s a global phenomenon, of course – but we take the ‘cynical shopper’ concept to a whole other level.

Like my buddy at the beginning of this article, many middle income South Africans wouldn’t be caught dead behind the wheel of anything that they wouldn’t be proud to parallel park in front of that trendy coffee shop or restaurant.

“Check it out people! I’ve arrived!”

The word “arrived” itself has a ring of finality to it – which is apt when I consider the future of this guy I spoke of. Because if he continues in his debt cycle, he really has nowhere else to go.

I juxtapose the image of him stylishly exiting from his snazzy set of wheels outside some tragically hip club or eatery, putting on a show for all to see – with that of him in the tiny apartment he rents (not owns) trying to make a meal of tinned tuna and crackers at the end of another lean month. And he’s not alone. There are countless others just like him – all falling victim to this ridiculous fixation with trying to show to the world that they have value by parading material evidence of their success!

They can look forward to many more salad days. At this rate they will continue to tread water financially, barely able to keep their heads above the surface. The cost of living, rising fuel and energy prices and insurance premiums and an impending toll system will ensure that they never build any real wealth.

But at least they’ll look cool on their way to oblivion!

I’d like to think that you’re smarter than that, Dear Young Person.

Oh dear, listen to me! I sound like an old fogey trying to tell you what to do with your money. This article isn’t about how to manage your finances. I’ll leave that to the people who are more qualified.

And for the record, I love cars. My bedroom was covered in posters of muscle cars and exotics when I was a little kid. I dreamed of collecting a garage full of them someday. Instead I owned a series of more modest cars over the years before eventually moving on to something more premium when I was able to afford it. My current vehicle is over 6 years old and getting on a bit. It’s by no means the latest model – and I don’t care that people expect a public figure like me to be cruising around in something more up-to-the-minute and flash. I have nothing to prove to anyone. I keep my car in good nick and it stills drives beautifully. And while I could replace it, I have no need to. And even if I were to, I would find it very difficult to justify spending that kind of money. Car prices in South Africa are, in my opinion, obscene! In a country (and world) where so many people don’t even know where their next meal is coming from, how can anyone spend up to a million rand on a car and not feel the slightest bit guilty? And yet, I see cars that cost that much everywhere on our roads – and I know that their owners are paying through the nose for the privilege. Somebody’s laughing all the way to the bank and it isn’t them!

I’m not saying you shouldn’t aspire to driving something nice someday. You work hard and deserve your spoils. But don’t get conned into thinking that these things define you or that you have to keep up with everybody. That’s just propaganda dreamed up by big business, designed to keep you coming back for more.

You are not your car!

And if anyone treats you like you are then they’re shallow, really silly and probably deeply insecure themselves.

So be patient with them.

Just give them a smile that lets them know that they’ve “arrived”…

At a place called stupidville.

Imraan Vagar

Author: Imraan Vagar

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11 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Hi Imraan,

    As one of my best friends will say in respect and agreement to a statement made – “WORD!”

    One of the most important lessons my mom taught me, was to “never live like the Joneses”. Though this lesson has stuck with me, and I am a huge advocate of it – it is slightly grim seeing your friends drive those “posh cars”. Or as you put it, rent those “posh cars”. For a minor period, I did forget this lesson.

    I am glad that you have reinstated this imperative teaching to all, and of course the young person. It certainly is encouraging.
    Although on the rare occasion when I am asked by a renter of these “posh cars”, (or when I do feel slightly grim) – “why don’t you purchase one yourself?” I simple vaunt about the property I purchased at 20, and how my real investment pays for itself…

    Regards,
    Mayuur H…

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    • Avatar

      I agree! I know so many people like this guy in the article. You could actually be describing one of them! They’re so brainwashed and concerned with keeping up appearances that they throw away good money and any chance of securing their future financial security. In our current economic climate, it’s not only ‘stupid’, but irresponsible. I find the sight of a row of sportscars and SUVS outside those plush places in Sandton just plain vulgar when I think of the living conditions of the majority of South Africans. I have no objections to people enjoying the spoils of their success, but as you said, so many of these people can’t really afford these cars. And do you really need THAT much car anyway? I find it laughable when I meet one of those petite businesswomen who drive a massive V12 SUV with 19 inch alloys! But how do you change a mindset that’s reinforced – as you put it – by the media on a daily basis? We need to start by addressing the whole definition of success. And our insecurities as a nation, as you quite rightly pointed out. It could start with celebrities, sorry “public figures” like yourself. I applaud you for setting an example!
      And good for you Mayuur H. You sound like a very smart young man!

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  2. Avatar

    Mmm, never thought about it that way… You really sound like you know what you’re talking about!

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  3. Avatar

    Damn straight! You are not your smartphone, tablet, handbag or other designer crap either!

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  4. Avatar

    What’s up, I just wanted to tell you I agree. Your post makes so much sense.

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  5. Avatar

    Spot on with this write-up!

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  6. Avatar

    You so hit the nail on the head!

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  7. Avatar

    Excellent write-up. I definitely love the message!

    Post a Reply

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