That's why I found some TV spots currently running for the Kia Sorento and Soul intriguing. These cars are portrayed, by contrast, as cute.
This isn't the first time cars have been marketed like this. The Volkswagen Beetle had a cute look from the beginning of its life in the U.S. It's been called the automotive version of a smiley face.
But these spots take cuteness one step further. One is scored to what sounds like neo-soul; the other, hip-hop -- both signs of hipness. The takeaway I get: not only are these cars cute, but they're cool because they're cute.
When you look into the marketing strategy for both, equating cute with cool makes total sense. The Sorento ad (which I think ran first during the Superbowl) is designed for young parents. According to Kia:
"Created by David & Goliath, 'Joyride Dream' speaks to young couples who are entering a new life stage and facing adult responsibilities while still desiring the style, freedom and fun they've always enjoyed."
The animals and toys that, in essence, do their partying for them, are the sorts of objects that signify their new lifestyle. As new parents, these are the kinds of cute things that would be left in their back seats by their kids.
As the late Stephen Jay Gould suggested, cuteness awakens the innate response to nurture. The spot is saying: your new, nurturing life can be just as fun as your old partying one, especially if you take the family around in a cute car like a Sorento.
The hamster ads, according to automotive reporter Jim Henry (writing about an earlier spot in the campaign) are designed to appeal to a younger crowd. The "cool" hamsters in Kias are meant to "stand out" against unhip animals that (in this commercial) are riding in everything from washing machines to cardboard boxes.
From what I've read, smaller, cube-like cars are already considered hip, urban rides. The cute hamsters add a light-hearted touch to Kia's version of this sort of vehicle: for me, they communicate that these are fun cars -- the perfect wheels to get the party started.
The Science of Cute
Noticing how these ads elicited an inner-smile from the inner-child I've been assured I have, I wondered about what made something cute in the first place. It turns out there's a whole science of cuteness -- and that the topic has been a hot one for online critics for years. Gould's observations are a touchpoint for them all.
Gould traced how the figure of Mickey Mouse had, over the years, been transformed -- from a wise guy rodent with a long, sharp snout -- to a cuddly mouse with big ears, big hands, an oversized head -- and a button-like nose. Gould said that as Mickey got older in historical years, in terms of what he stood for, he got younger.
What the artists at Disney discovered was something Zoologist Konrad Lorenz constructed a theory about: that the more you made an animal look like a human baby, the cuter it became.
In this light, it's pretty clear why so many ads pursue cuteness. As Gary Genosko at Invisible Culture put it, commerce "remakes" bodies in the interest of cuteness to give "everyone a chance to be a kind of nurturer through consumption."
The Triumph of Cuteness
Sentimentality, it's often said, is the other side of cynicism. So, perhaps the flip side of our cool, ironic culture is unabashed cuteness.
But, speaking impressionistically, it appears to me that cute has been winning out lately. It almost seems more modern, at least in terms of popular aesthetics, to be cute (in everything from indie music to digital products) than merely cool.
Why might this be? One possible answer: the digital products that, along with cars, dominate commercial space, especially in their mobile incarnation, are smaller than old time media (TV, movie screens, etc.). And though they don't look like children, they are diminutive and toy-like. Even grown ups devote a lot of their day to playing games on them.
To sell such experiences, popular culture increasingly encourages regression: it's as if consciousness is being remodeled like Mickey Mouse's image -- to get more childlike. As one of AT&T's spots (while advertising its digital capabilities to stressed professionals) announces: "Welcome to your fifth birthday, again."
Of course, in the great recession people need to unwind. But why, I wonder, is it now necessary to think like a little kid to do so? Thoughts?