There’s a car craze in the outdoor industry

Wilderness is traversed by a Land Rover. On either side of it, an unpaved path is surrounded by trees. Seeing callouts appear and fade in splendorous isolation, a straight couple and their children sit inside: Improved performance. The second row seat is now more comfortable. Infotainment that is intuitive. Ionization of cabin air is depicted in an animated chyron midscreen: an animated oxygen molecule flows out of the vents. 20 months after COVID-19 arrived, this proclamation is telling as the US resumes somewhat regular life.

“Shared mobility was a major narrative heading into the pandemic. Rich Agnew, global brand communications director for Land Rover, says, “Coming out of the pandemic, it is very clear that private-car ownership is back on the top of consumers’ agendas, because a car becomes a part of your cocoon.”

Vehicle cocoons, in contrast to homes during lockdown, are mobile, with a specified destination – the side of the road. Our drive to get there is therefore being capitalized upon by car manufacturers. At the moment, Outspiration is our campaign, says Agnew. Our mission is to reconnect America with the great outdoors.”

Land Rover isn’t the only brand out there. Consumer messaging is enhancing the role of the outdoors for brands across the economic spectrum, as they portray individuals and families using their vehicles to escape enclosed spaces, traffic, and urban density.

There’s nothing particularly new about this message. It is the mythos of America that we are freed from citified confines and immersed in the land. Our ostensible handbook, the Holy Scriptures, is steeped in the racist, colonialist idea of Manifest Destiny. Frederic Church’s purported landscape paintings are also relevant to it.

Recent consumer messaging does more than simply capitalize on our desire to feel separate from other humans. Consumption patterns have changed.

This notion has been exploited by automotive brands since the birth of the automobile. During the first decade of the 20th century, “In My Merry Oldsmobile” was used as an ad for Oldsmobile for decades. Campin’ in cars in the great outdoors became such a national fad in the 1920s that newspaper ads promoting the pastime proliferated – even Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, and President Warren Harding went “vagabonding” together. In the late 1940s, Land Rover ads touted its ability to go anywhere, and showed a SUV driving over an ocean on a globe. (Car camps turned into Hoovervilles during the Depression, offering refuge to the despondent.) The Jeep Grand Wagoneer in the 1980s became the top vehicle of choice for Americans with the highest household income. There has been an increase in this trend among automakers. Cheap gas, a blind reverse mortgage of our planet, and bunker ideology all fueled these vehicles’ growth, and popularity. In America, trucks, vans, and SUVs account for more than three-quarters of all new vehicles sold.

Communications professor Shane Gunster, in his 2004 Ethics and the Environment journal article “You Belong Outside: Advertising, Nature, and the SUV,” presciently labeled commercial images of the outdoors in automotive advertising as “common signifiers of utopia, tirelessly making the case that a certain commodity or brand will enable an escape from the malaise and drudgery of urban existence.” Yet the most recent spate of consumer messaging does more than simply capitalize on our fantasy to separate ourselves from other humans and our innate misery. Consumption habits have changed.

This shift has been quite profound, says Alexander Edwards of Strategic Vision, which conducts automotive-research. “Pre-pandemic, people mostly traveled by car for commuting, driving their children, and running errands,” Edwards says. But deep into the pandemic, and afterward, they are significantly more likely to display increased behavior in four key areas, including taking vacations, carrying large items like bicycles or kayaks, and going off-road in dirt and gravel or rocks and sand.”

Edwards specifies that even a 1-percent increase in a new-car market that sells 17 million cars annually is significant, noting that the usage increases between 5 and 8 percent annually. There are literally hundreds of thousands of people who are doing these activities more often.”

In the first quarter of 2021, electric vehicle sales reached record levels. Hybrid vehicle sales have more than doubled over 2020, and those of pure electric vehicles rose nearly 45 percent.

Many of us who use the trails regularly have noticed this shift, sometimes in a bad way, as parking lots overflow and etiquette falls by the wayside. There are ways that auto manufacturers with outdoor-oriented fan bases are tackling these problems-and letting consumers know about them. During the pandemic, Subaru promoted its role in the National Parks Foundation, whose mission is to reduce the amount of trash in parks and make them landfill-free.

Subaru also acknowledges that its customers are seeking refuge from such invasions. Nicole Riedel, the brand’s carline planning manager, says that with the parks being so crowded, our owners may choose to travel farther out, as they are more comfortable in the outdoors than the new arrivals. So we needed to provide them with a way to get there.”

The brand’s solution was the creation of an all-new model, the Outback Wilderness. (The need for adventure resides within all of us, but for some, it’s much greater.) Equipped with a jacked-up suspension, beefy tires, and an enhanced all-wheel-drive system, it’s a factory-built vehicle for adventurers. It’s an overlanding vehicle, fully warrantied.

These shifts in the market are not temporary, according to the automakers. It is important to reconnect with family and the outdoors not just during times of crisis, but every day as well,” Agnew says. “I believe that is a good correction for society. In the short term, we do not expect that to change.”

Subaru concurs with me. Consequently, it has expanded its Wilderness line to include a complete vehicle line. As the millennial generation and Generation Z take over the market, they’re seeking authentic experiences. Riedel explains that they aren’t interested in fancy food or hotels, but rather in getting out and doing things on their own. A wellness package includes both mental and physical health, which makes the outdoors a double-win. We believe it is going to grow and grow in importance in people’s lives.”

Nonetheless, all this masks a much morbid reality that occupies the minds of many of us.

But isn’t it hypocritical that the outdoors is used to promote an item which contributes, in major way, to the destruction of the planet? (Outside has reviewed many of these vehicles and partnered with these companies on advertising deals.) Carmakers have highlighted their moves toward electrification, commitments to sustainability during the manufacturing process, and general commitment to environmental preservation. There is much to be desired in terms of regulating consumers to help them make more sustainable choices, as well as helping to decrease the impact of a slow-moving industry on climate change.

Consumers’ attitudes about automotive value are also influenced by outdoor engagement. According to Edwards, some people have looked even more at electric and hybrid vehicles since the pandemic and re-awakening. They didn’t do it to save money-that’s not what they cared about-but to be worldwide aware.

Direct action has resulted from this as well. In the first quarter of 2021, electric vehicle sales reached record levels. Hybrid vehicle sales have more than doubled over 2020, and those of pure electric vehicles rose nearly 45 percent. Battery-powered vehicles are becoming more popular as people consider many factors when making the change. Edwards says some people who initially dismissed hybrids and electric cars thought maybe it was time to reconsider them after the pandemic and in the years following. The change began in March to May of 2020, when people began to pay more attention to the impact of global environmental changes, in part because they were not on vacation.

During the next year or so, dozens more electric vehicles will be released by automakers. In addition, EVs will be created in market segments where consumers are already shopping: trucks and SUVs. This kind of paradigm shift will be necessary—perhaps more necessary than consumers are able to change—to help overcome the global environmental issues we face. Our collective wishes and destinies will also need to be reevaluated as part of this change in our understanding.

“Most people envision a post-apocalyptic future when they think about the future,” says Richard Louv, bestselling author of Last Child in the Woods, The Nature Principle, and Our Wild Calling. The problem is, if those are the only images of the future that a culture can conjure, what happens to it? ‘Be careful what you wish for since it might come true’, right? Imagine carefully, it might become a reality.”

Louv writes that we must imagine our fate and place in it in a new way, which he calls imaginative hope. ‘We need to begin coming up with new visions for the future. The future looks beautiful. He says it’s more than just sustainability. “We will have to work really hard on this.”

Imagine electric cars gliding silently through vibrant greenbelt cities powered by sustainably harvested green energy instead of automakers’ alfresco fantasies. Whether the windows are open or closed on those cars remains to be seen.

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