A Driving Force in Stereotypes ; Jeep Revives Cherokee, Tapping Industry History in Ethnic Nameplates

Article excerpt

In a time of heightened sensitivity over stereotypes, ethnic, racial and gender labeling has been largely erased from sports teams, products and services. But there are exceptions.

Coming to a showroom near you for 2014: the first sport utility vehicle in its class equipped with a nine-speed automatic transmission. It is also the first to offer a parallel-parking feature. And, in four-wheel-drive models, the rear axle disconnects automatically, for fuel efficiency.

And 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 rolled back to varying degrees in sports teams, products and services, Jeep is reviving a Native American 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 consulting firm.

Jeep, a division of Chrysler Group, has explained that its market research showed 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."

American Indians have hardly been alone in the cavalcade of automobile cultural stereotyping.

In the 1950s, advertising for the Studebaker Scotsman did not actually use the word cheapskate, but prospective buyers were informed that "when you and your family sit in your thrifty Scotsman," the "great Studebaker body cradles you, your family and friends in safety."

It should be noted, though, that the Scotsman had cardboard door panels and its hubcaps and trim were not chrome-plated: They were painted silver.

While there is no indication that the Viking, made by General Motors, was discontinued in the early 1930s because of protests by outraged Scandinavians, it is a certainty that no automaker's copywriters would dare write today that "the development of the Viking car closely parallels the development of the Viking youth in attaining manhood," where "only those best fitted for leadership survived to contribute to the strength and superiorities of the race."

As for the Graham Crusader, sold briefly starting in 1936, there is no record of uprisings by angry jihadists against the Western crusader mentality.

The advertising featured knights and castles and proudly stated that "Richard Coeur de Lion chose his Crusaders according to their carriage, appearance and power."

Moreover, in the Roaring Twenties there seems not to have been a feminist rejection of the Jordan Little Tomboy. Its 1927 advertising brochure depicted on its cover a smart, stylish woman in jodhpurs and knee-length boots, clutching a riding crop. The purple marketing prose stated that "I am the Little Jordan Tomboy," with "a thousand miles of open road before my saucy nose."

Also hard to fathom now is the Studebaker Dictator, "Champion of its Class," discontinued after 1937, when the rise of Hitler and Mussolini gave the model name an unpleasant odor.

In the late 1920s, the quest for association with high-profile leaders led the Windsor Autoworks in St. Louis to shamelessly place a color portrait of the Prince of Wales on its 1929 brochure for a new vehicle, the White Prince. Buckingham Palace was not amused, and expressed its displeasure.

But back to the Indians.

Jeep said it respected 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."

Actually, there has been some dissent. …