By Mark Walton, The Incurable Enthusiast
I OWN A Subaru, but would I consider myself a ‘Subaru Man’? Not sure. To be honest, playing the word association game, ‘Subaru Man’ makes me think of lads in modified Imprezas, gold wheels, big exhausts, enough bass to set off a burglar alarm. I drive a battered Forester diesel and listen to Radio 4.
I also own two classic Land Rovers, but does that make me ‘Land Rover Man’? Oh God, I hope not – ‘Land Rover Man’ drives a Series III covered in checkerplate, he wears camo and is an active participant in his local 4x4 club, along with his long-suffering wife, Barbara.
So – how much does your car really say about you? With rumours swirling about the end of Mondeo production – rumours denied by Ford – there’s been a lot in the papers recently about the death of ‘Mondeo Man’. Famously coined in the build-up to the 1997 election, Mondeo Man was, in fact, a complete fabrication by the British press. The then Leader of the Opposition, Tony Blair, made a speech at the 1996 Labour Party Conference, recalling a self-employed electrician he met while canvassing back in 1992. He lived on an ‘ordinary suburban estate’, Blair recalled, and he was ‘polishing his Ford Sierra’. Nice anecdote, perfect soundbite, however… the Sierra went out of production in 1993, and journalists love alliteration like leopards love licking lollies. So the press just ignored the model specifics and Mondeo Man was born.
Don’t worry, though, even if those Ford rumours do come true, and Mr Mondeo is about to pull into the layby of history, there are plenty of other car-based political stereotypes right behind him. In 1999, William Hague appealed to Volvo Man, who was basically Mondeo Man with a bit more money and a labrador.
For the 2010 election, pollsters used the phrase ‘Motorway Man’, described as ‘aspirational, materialistic and car dependent’, and living near a motorway. Sounds like all of us? Otherwise, Motorway Man was a little vague on the specific car brand. Maybe we could help pin him down more, using cars launched in 2010? ‘Mini Countryman Man’? ‘Twizy Man’? But all this is child’s play compared to the next election.
Thanks to artificial intelligence and big data, our socioeconomic- automotive grouping is now way more sophisticated than Tony Blair’s gut feel. Last year, researchers at Stanford University developed an algorithm to recognise the make, model and year of every car in over 45 million Google Street View images taken in 200 American cities. The AI was trained using an index of cars found in online classified ads and labelled.
Once this info was digested, the AI became the nerdiest of all car nerds: ‘Differences between cars can be imperceptible to an untrained person,’ the team explains. ‘For instance, some car models can have subtle changes in tail lights (for example, 2007 Honda Accord versus 2008 Honda Accord) or grilles (2001 Ford F-150 Supercrew LL versus 2011 Ford F-150 Supercrew SVT).
Nevertheless, our system is able to classify automobiles… taking 0.2 seconds per vehicle image to do so.’ This is seriously impressive. Have you seen a 2008 Honda Accord? Forget the 2007 comparison – it’s so bland I can barely distinguish it from a Toyota Avensis.
And why go to all this trouble? Politics, of course. ‘Using the classified motor vehicles in each neighbourhood, we infer a wide range of demographic statistics, socio-economic attributes, and political preferences of its residents,’ the team says. By overlaying voting data from the 2008 election, the team was able to drill down to extraordinary, granular detail: ‘We learned that vans are the most highly correlated car attribute with crime, a 1% increase in the percentage of Cadillacs in a zip code predicts a 23% increase in the number of black people and those who drive pick-up trucks with crew cabs are 6% less likely to vote for Obama than those who do not.’
So in the next election, don’t expect politicians to reference vague ‘Volkswagen Man’ or fuzzy ‘Fiesta Man’ – from now on it’s going to get laser targeted. ‘I speak for the silent majority! Those left behind! The hard-working family! The Suzuki Ignis 1.2 Dualjet Hybrid Allgrip SZ5 Man!’