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Minivans are like the kids in class who constantly get hit in the back of the head with spitballs.  It’s not that people don’t like them, it’s that they don’t want to be them.  Indeed, if you talk to people who own a minivan, most will say that they genuinely appreciate its functionality.  However, almost without fail, they then cover their faces and apologize for owning one.  It’s a classic case of cognitive dissonance.

Cognitive dissonance has frequently been described as an uncomfortable feeling caused by a thought or action that is discrepant with one’s usually positive self-conception.  According to cognitive dissonance theory, this discomfort drives us to reduce the negative feelings, much like hunger and thirst prompt eating and drinking, respectively.

We typically reduce cognitive dissonance in one of three ways:

1. Change our behavior to bring it in line with the dissonant cognition.

Example: Buy a Ford Excursion with a gun rack and start hunting lions.

2. Justify our behavior by adding new cognitions.

Example: “I bought this minivan for the kids because I am the best parent in the world, and those narcissists in the Chevy Suburbans clearly have no respect for human life.”

3. Justify our behavior by changing the dissonant cognition.

Example: See the list below to help exercise this option…


1. Exclusivity.  In 2010, minivans accounted for about slightly less than 4% of the approximately 11.7 million light vehicle sales in the United States.  Therefore, only about 460,000 people bought minivans last year.  Some people have more Facebook friends.

2. Engineering.  I love supercars, but doing more with more is not particularly impressive.  In addition, they are impractical and about as uncomfortable as men who wear skinny jeans.  In contrast, minivan engineers have an incredibly tough assignment – please an entire family by building a vehicle upon which every owner will crucially rely yet under-appreciate, using mainstream components in a difficult-to-style package that must be mass produced and sold within a reasonable, albeit increasing, price range.  Building a Ferrari is like playing with Legos, in comparison.

3. Luxury.  In order to be competitive, minivans must now have more cup holders than a baseball locker room, so much A/V equipment that MTV had to cancel Pimp My Ride, doors that automatically open, close, and provide therapy, interiors flexible enough to have their own Cirque de Soleil show, and even chilled beverage containers for the discerning sippy cup crowd.  If I owned a limousine company, I’m a little nervous come prom season.

4. Procreation.  No, not the kind that forced you into a minivan in the first place, the kind in which minivans themselves have engaged.  In the United States, we now have a new automotive niche born from minivans, mini-minivans.  You are probably most familiar with the Mazda5 and others, such as the upcoming Ford C-Max, will be showing up at dealerships within the next few years.  Therefore, minivan owners (or, “minivan rollers”, because it sounds cooler) have not sold their soul to the diaper-changing devil.  They’re trendsetters.  Speaking of which…

5. Minivan-chic.  There is shabby-chic, geek-chic, and eco-chic, none of which have traditionally chic origins.  Contrary to the perception that minivans are a 4,000 lb. needle hurtling straight toward the bull’s-eye on your self-esteem balloon, I believe they represent a type of chic just waiting to be hyphenated.  Drive it with confidence, and you and the Beckhams may just find yourselves using all of that horsepower to outrun the paparazzi.

6. Good looking.  Seriously.  The new Toyota Sienna and the previous version of the Honda Odyssey are pretty good-looking vehicles complete with relatively athletic stances.  Furthermore, the new Honda Odyssey has a lightening bolt running down the side of it.  How cool is that?

Photo: Carscoop. Note how the beltline drops down toward the rear. Shazam!

7. Disco balls.  These should be optional because pushing the button that opens all of the minivans’ doors, especially the tailgate, creates an instant party.  From tailgating to drive-ins, everyone will be clamoring to press out the wrinkles from sitting in their cramped midlife-crisis sports cars to hang around the “cool people” with the minivan.  And you know what they say, what happens in drive-ins, stays in drive-ins.

8. Unlike babysitters, they won’t eat your food.  They may guzzle gas more than the average family sedan, but it will be from the pump and not the fridge.  My sister and brother-in-law have a minivan, and my nieces and nephew have been instantly transformed into something that they have never been before – quiet.  Now they can take them anywhere.  Those televisions are like visual valium for children, though probably just as addictive.  It may not be the best parenting technique, but it works in a pinch.

9. Covert cargo-ops.  Minivans are chameleonic in their ability to carry cargo, whether it be the humantype or the Home Depot variety.  However, the best part is that neighbors will never ask you to help them move because your cargo hauler is virtually camouflaged for that duty.  Anyone who has ever owned a pick-up, including this author, thinks that is way cool.

10. Easy living.  Unless one is a slave for fashion or a masochist, comfortable is better than uncomfortable.  Minivans make life easier and that may just be the best reason to buy one.  Compared to the fashionistas in their four-door coupes, you will arrive at your destination refreshed and looking your best.  And remember, nothing is forever.  Once the kids gets shipped off to college, the army, or prison, you can get something even cooler.

Do you think minivans are (not) cool?  Vote below and sound off by leaving a comment!



I have found inspiration, and it was looking at me through the shadowy eyes of a Lexus.

As this blog finds its voice, it appears that Lexus may have found its face.  Teaser images indicate that a unique front-end design may find itself on the new GS350 that is scheduled to be unveiled at Pebble Beach, and its DNA may eventually be shared with other models in Lexus’ lineup.

Lexus GS350 Teaser Image

I think that Lexus’ about-face is a good move for the brand, and here’s why.

Faces are important.  People can generally recognize and infer information from human faces, such as age, sex, personality traits, and emotion, within milliseconds of exposure.  This ability gives us an adaptive advantage.  For example, quickly recognizing anger in others’ faces allows us to infer that physical danger may be imminent.  Therefore, if we cannot recognize a face or discern what thoughts and feelings may lie behind it, then we lose valuable information, and perhaps much more.

Would you react to each of these people in the same way?

I believe that automobile manufacturers face (sorry!) similar risks when designing cars.  Our facial recognition system is so hyper-aware, that we also see faces in non-human objects.  Thus, if a car’s front fascia does not provide information about its attitude, purpose, or behavioral intentions, then potential consumers may suffer from a form of automotive prosopagnosia – they can recognize that the vehicle is a car, but it does not appear distinct in any way.  In contrast, who can forget the first time that they looked into the soul-piercing stare of a BMW’s “angel-eye” headlights while its nostrils flared in the rearview mirror?

Anthropomorphism at its finest.

Lexus’ new face provides information about the GS350’s intentions and, by extension, the brand.  In fact, it appears that Lexus is getting increasingly serious about its cars’ sporting prowess.  This renewed focus may also give the brand more street credibility, which is an important weapon in the constant battle with luxury-car manufacturers that have sporting images, such as BMW and Audi.  In essence, sportier and more aggressive Lexi Lexuses Lexera Lexus mean that there will be increased cohesion between the cars’ faces and their body language (another important source of visual information).   Speaking of aggressiveness, this design direction may be a particularly good way to go.  For example, findings from a recent study suggest that male and female participants “liked” cars that convey a sense of “power”.  According to the authors, power involved traits of dominance, masculinity, and anger.  While we will have to wait until the production version is unveiled to assess its visual power, the GS350 seems to be on the right track.

Does liking and brand recognition lead to increased purchases?  Psychologists and market researchers have known for years that liking and buying intentions do not necessarily equate to increased sales.  However, good designs get people into showrooms, and good cars tend to get into people’s driveways.  Therefore, if Lexus continues with a distinct design theme, the driving capabilities to back it up, and its relentless pursuit of perfection, their cars will be much more than just another pretty face.


Saving money on gasoline and reducing our reliance on oil is no game, yet games may be exactly what allow us to achieve those goals.  In one of his excellent blog posts, Michael Wu, Ph.D. defines gamification as “the use of game mechanics to drive game-like engagement and actions” .  The psychology of gamification runs deep, but its basic purpose is to turn mundane or even loathed tasks into fun and rewarding activities.  As a result, a well-designed game can motivate and reinforce participation in previously uninteresting or disliked tasks, such as modifying driving behavior to decrease fuel consumption.

Conserving gasoline is usually not very high on Americans’ automotive things-to-do list.  However, when gasoline prices flirted with the $4.00 mark, many analysts suggested that we crossed a psychological threshold over which we may never cross back.  In a June 2011 survey, the U.S. Department of Energy asked participants, “Which one of the following attributes would be MOST important to you in your choice of your next vehicle?”  The choices included:

  • Fuel economy
  • Dependability
  • Low price
  • Quality
  • Safety

For the first time since 1980 (see chart below), the majority of participants (30%) chose fuel economy as their top priority (dependability, low price, quality, and safety were the next most important attributes, respectively).

U.S. Department of Energy Vehicle Attribute Survey

Do you think that games can help achieve greater fuel economy?  I believe the answer is yes, and whether it is intentional or not, car makers are already getting into the, er, game.  For example, on the dashboard of the Ford Fusion, drivers can view a diagram of a tree that grows “efficiency leaves” as driving efficiency increases.  Although the idea may seem quirky, many automotive journalists, a group that is normally more concerned with horsepower than silviculture, have quickly gotten hooked, which is exactly the point.

Ford Fusion Hybrid Dashboard

I also believe that gamifying fuel-efficient driving can go much farther.  For instance, vehicle telematics have become increasingly important, particularly among the coveted younger generation of buyers.  Imagine the following scenarios:

  • Virtual badges that drivers can earn for a set level(s) of fuel efficiency that are displayed on one’s car.
  • Collectives that are bound together by some characteristic (e.g., type of car, organization, company) whose goal is achieve the highest level of combined gas mileage.  Telematics can connect members’ cars to show how efficiently each member is driving, which may decrease social loafing and increase collective gas mileage.
  • Competitions among a group of drivers designed to reward the person who achieves the best gas mileage according to a fixed set of rules.  Telematics can allow drivers to see in real time how well their competitors doing.  (I can imagine morning radio shows holding such contests.)
  • Dealership points that are awarded to drivers who achieve certain levels of gas mileage, which can then be used for discounts on service and maintenance.

Games may become the sugar that makes the fuel medicine go down without us even knowing, which is exactly the point.

What game ideas do you have?  Please share by posting a comment.


If I were to suggest that the best way for an automobile manufacturer to increase sales of a particular vehicle is to fit it with a relatively small base engine, downgrade the interior materials from the previous version, and refrain from making the design stand out from the crowd, would you agree?  Someone at Volkswagen made such suggestions during the development of the new Jetta…and it happens to be working quite well.

June 2011 sales of the Jetta were up 88% from last year.  Moreover, TDI diesel Jettas accounted for nearly one quarter of those sales, up 121%.  Therefore, not only is Volkswagen getting Americans to buy more of their compact cars, they are getting them to buy more of their diesel compact cars.  Unglaublich!
Why?  Although I am most interested in your comments, I have two suggestions:
1. CONFORMITY (or lack thereof) – Many of us like to think of ourselves as non-conformists, even though the evidence suggests otherwise (e.g., you probably ate your cereal this morning with a spoon, drove to work on the appropriate side of the road, and, unless you live in Los Angeles, didn’t shoot anyone on your drive into the office).  However, the compact car segment is known for ubiquity, not exclusivity.  Therefore, one possibility is that owners of the new Jetta view it as a greater expression of individuality compared to other stalwarts of the compact car segment, such as the Honda Civic or Toyota Corolla.  In other words, Jettas, and by extension the people that drive them, may be seen as an uncommon choice in a segment seemingly rife with commonality.
Do Jetta owners value individuality more than owners of other cars in the same segment?  Do they consider themselves to be less conforming than other compact car owners?  The answers may be important because, if the evidence indicates that individuality matters comparatively more to Jetta owners, then it would be ironic that Volkswagen is aiming to dramatically increase overall sales.  One possible implication going forward would be for Volkswagen to reinforce the notion that the Jetta still stands out from the crowd, even as an increasing number of them join it.
2. IMAGE – Image may not be everything, but research suggests that we do our best to maintain a positive self-image.  In turn, people who purchase the new Jetta may believe that it better projects their image than other segment rivals.  For example, Jetta owners may want to be associated with the Jetta’s German engineering roots, as well as its relatively sophisticated stable mates, such as the GTI, Passat, and Touareg (not to mention some of its cousins, such as Audi, Porsche, Bentley, and Lamborghini).  Although the exterior styling has been described by some as dull, it’s tailored and will probably age well.  While the new Hyundai Elantra may be more visually stimulating, the Jetta may come across as more sophisticated.
Do owners of the new Jetta want to project a different image than owners of comparable models?  Are they drawn to the European background and what it may say about them?

Journalists may have been relatively ungenerous with their automotive praise, but car buyers are so far bucking their reviews.  In a way, it’s refreshingly different.  Perhaps that is what Jetta owners feel about their new cars.