June 21, 2013

Return of the Jeep Cherokee

When Cars Assume Ethnic Identities

By Glenn CollinsComing to a showroom near you for 2014: the first sport utility vehicle in its class equipped with a 9-speed automatic transmission. It’s also the first to offer a parallel-parking feature. And, in 4-wheel-drive models, the rear axle disconnects automatically, for fuel efficiency.

Oh, yes: its name is the Jeep Cherokee.

Hold on—wasn’t that model name retired more than a decade ago? Wasn’t it replaced by the Jeep Liberty for 2002?

Yet now, in a time of heightened sensitivity over stereotypes, years after ethnic, racial and gender labeling has been largely erased from sports teams, products and services, Jeep is reviving an American Indian model name. Why?

“In the automobile business, you constantly have to reinvent yourself, and sometimes it’s best to go back to the future,” said Allen Adamson, managing director of the New York office of Landor Associates, a brand and corporate identity consultancy.

Jeep, a division of the Chrysler Group, explained that its market research revealed a marked fondness for the name. The 2014 version, said Jim Morrison, director of Jeep marketing, “is a new, very capable vehicle that has the Cherokee name and Cherokee heritage. Our challenge was, as a brand, to link the past image to the present.”

The company says it respects changed attitudes toward stereotyping. “We want to be politically correct, and we don’t want to offend anybody,” Mr. Morrison said. Regarding the Cherokee name, he added: “We just haven’t gotten any feedback that was disparaging.”

Well, here’s some: “We are really opposed to stereotypes,” said Amanda Clinton, a spokeswoman for the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma. “It would have been nice for them to have consulted us in the very least.”

But, she added, the Cherokee name is not copyrighted, and the tribe has been offered no royalties for the use of the name. “We have encouraged and applauded schools and universities for dropping offensive mascots,” she said, but stopped short of condemning the revived Jeep Cherokee because, “institutionally, the tribe does not have a stance on this.”

So far, marketing materials for the 2014 Cherokee model have eschewed references to, or portrayals of, American Indians and their symbols. That’s a far cry from the excesses of past years, when marketers went beyond embracing stereotyping to reveling in it. Indeed, Chrysler’s restraint seems an indication of just how much things have changed.

For decades, American Indian tribal names have helped to propel automobiles out of showrooms. Return with us now to the era when Pontiac’s sales brochures carried illustrations comparing its 6-cylinder engines to six red-painted, feathered cartoon Indian braves rowing a canoe.

Or review Pontiac’s marketing copy, which proclaimed that “among the names of able Indian warriors known to the white race in America, that of Pontiac, chief of the Ottawas and accepted leader of the Algonquin family of tribes, stands pre-eminent.” Of course, the visage of the chief was appropriated as a hood ornament.

Comment:  This posting led to a brief discussion with a Facebook friend:My theory is that if the vehicle is any good the appropriation won't be as offensive. The Cherokee, especially the second-generation unibody one AMC and then Chrysler manufactured, was a well-regarded SUV. Meso-Americans in general, however, should still be up in arms over the Aztek.

With the exception of the Studebaker Scotsman and General Motors' Viking brand, I cannot think of any non-Native American ethnicity/nationality used on any motor vehicle.
Good point on the lack of other ethnicities. Cars are named for occupations (Ranger, Scout) and animals (Impala, Cougar). And Indians.

It's just like the problem with mascots. It incorrectly conflates a race with occupations and with animals.Then what about names like Chiefs, Braves and Warriors, which are all professions?Warriors is a profession with no racial emphasis. Chiefs and Braves are specific to Indians--at least in the context of sports mascots. No team has ever used a fire chief or a chief executive officer as its mascot. And "brave" means "Indian brave":


"A warrior, especially among North American Indian tribes."

For more on the subject, see Military Craft, Cars, and Liquor and Indian Nicknames for Military Craft.

Below:  "1928 Pontiac Indian head mascot."

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