O Brave New World That Has Such Minivans in It!
(FORTUNE Magazine) – When it comes to strengthening those domestic bonds, you can't beat a family trip into the scenic American countryside. Except for the family, of course. And the trip. Oh, yeah--and the scenic American countryside. Fortunately, one automaker has finally stepped forward to rid us of that eternal scourge, quality time with the kids amid the beauty of nature. The Oldsmobile Silhouette Premiere, the first minivan with a built-in videoplayer (including individual headphones and volume controls and even inputs for videogame systems), promises to turn license-plate bingo, count-the-cow, "Ninety-Nine Bottles of Beer"--indeed, almost any nonemergency roadway communication with your offspring--into a distant memory.
A current TV spot for the Premiere shows a family hunkered down for a long vacation trip: Dad drives, Mom enjoys a steaming cup of coffee, Bro and Sis munch popcorn and watch National Velvet. (Per state regulations, the monitor hangs from the ceiling behind the front seats, thus avoiding the specter of Dad taking in a Last Picture Show.) As Liz Taylor's horse gallops through a sunlit pasture on the Premiere's monitor, we cut to beaming tykes and then a long shot of the minivan--which is itself driving through a vast, pristine plain toward a breathtaking range of snowcapped mountains.
Not that the kids are looking at the dazzling scenery--hey, there's a video on! "Movies," the voice-over intones, "have taken us places beyond our imagination." No argument there, but wasn't that pretty much why families went on vacation? Maybe in yesteryear, but let's be realistic; what purple mountains' majesty can compete with, say, Jim Carrey talking through his butt cheeks? Olds found natural tie-in partners in Blockbuster Video and Turner Entertainment, whose cassettes and video titles are featured in the ads. (Turner Entertainment, like FORTUNE, is owned by Time Warner.) The Premiere doesn't have a television antenna, and for that ten-day trip to the Rockies, you'll want either to buy your videos outright (and do note the plural, unless 75 straight screenings of Aladdin XII: Eisner's Payday is your idea of relaxing vacation fare) or pay a hefty rental charge.
It was probably only a matter of time until someone turned the minivan into a TV lounge, considering how the suburban schooners have long been marketed as a sort of mobile extension of the home; a 1988 commercial, for instance, referred to the Ford Aerostar as the "family room." But that's really a faulty analogy, since family members trapped in cars without VCRs, PCs, or PlayStations often have little choice but to pay attention to one another (even if that attention tends toward the hair-pulling-and-noogies variety).
Intrafamily in-vehicle interaction may be going the way of the taffy pull and the quilting bee, though, as family cars and minivans evolve into individually customizable multimedia pods; separate add-on video systems for other vehicles are already on the market. Ironic, too, since the classic car commercial used to emphasize families exploring the outdoors together, not being distracted from it separately: "See the U.S.A. in your Chevrolet!" Dinah Shore commanded in 1953, "America's the greatest land of all!" You remember America, right, kids? It's that green and brown stuff in the background of Pocahontas. We'll have to rent it sometime.