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Women want cup holders in a car? Wake up and smell the coffee

A recent article in Slate took another swing at the old "What women want" fastball. Author Libby Copeland discussed "psychiatrist-turned-marketer" Clotaire Rapaille and his assertions that he can look deep into my female reptilian brain to know exactly what I want in a car: he has decided I want cup holders.

Essentially, Rapaille has worked with most of the top companies in the world to help them dial in the great combination to make people buy stuff. He bypasses the usual focus groups and roundtable discussions and tells these companies that we – consumers – make all our buying decisions based on hard-wired impulses.

While I won't deny that our brains are deep and wonderful mysteries that perform subconscious acrobatics every minute, I take issue with some of Rapaille's conclusions. I'm aware I'm somewhat alone with my raised eyebrow; Fortune 500 companies have not made me as insanely rich as they have Rapaille, so he must be on to something. Right?

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Cup holders. You might think it's because they're functional. That we simply want cup holders because cup holders make sense. You would be wrong, in Rapaille's world. No, we want cup holders because they remind us of coffee, and coffee reminds us of breakfast in our kitchen and feeling safe. We want cup holders so we feel safe.

Rapaille has neatly cleaved the cars he advises on into lovely, predicable stereotypes: he helped Chrysler go with the huge menacing pickups that rolled out in the 1990s that ushered in monstrous SUVs, each more brutish than the last. Rapaille has the Hummer on his resume; he has it in the win column, though your mileage may vary.

On the flip side, the man has a weird obsession with female proclivities, as he sees them. He once described minivans as wombs. Women love them because they are wombs. In fact, he declared, "stand a minivan on its rear bumper and it has the silhouette of a pregnant woman in a floor-length dress." I think it has the silhouette of a desperate call to the CAA, but I digress. He also had a hand in the PT Cruiser. Womb? Hearse? Perhaps we should stand it on its rear bumper for a better understanding. Nope. Now it just resembles a guy with a beer belly in a recliner.

In 1984, I had one of the first Chrysler Mini Ram Vans. It had no cup holders, and I wanted them. Not to feel safe, but to have somewhere to put my cup. You could buy these cheesy aftermarket cup holders that clipped to the window frame, and it wasn't long before manufacturers clued in and cup holders started appearing.

I borrowed a friend's older Honda CR-V the other day, and it had no cup holders in the back. Again, Rapaille was right that I would have liked them, though not for safety, just to prevent two teenage boys from kicking over their Cokes.

I have driven vehicles that had so many cup holders in so many strange places, I wondered if Rapaille had been set loose in the design studio. I understand one cup holder per seat; I do not understand multiple cup holders in rear quarters of vehicles where there are no seats.

One of the best car makers in the world – Porsche – makes, hands down, the worst cup holders.

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On its sports cars, you have to press the hidden strip that will fold down to reveal two further recessed buttons. Upon pressing them, a spindly arm extends, into which you carefully jam your coffee and then worry the whole time. It looks like ET is holding your cup. The Cayenne grudgingly offers up a cup holder in the correct spot, but it has flexing tabs that grab the cup to hold it in place. Firmly. So firmly, you can only get the cup in there by tipping it half way over and jamming it in. You are permitted to have half a cup of coffee in a Porsche. Actually, the message is that Porsche engineers do not want you drinking in their cars, period.

I'm driving a Ford Fusion Hybrid right now, which has lovely cup holders, and just the right number. More importantly, it has a great spot beneath the dash where I can safely stash a camera or, better yet, my purse. Now that, Mr. Rapaille, is what women want; somewhere to put our purse. Or, as you no doubt call it, a womb on a strap.

Nearly a decade ago, a PBS commentator challenged Rapaille's devotion to answering to the reptilian part of the consumer's brain, "reducing us to our most primal impulses," to the exclusion of all other factors including environmental ones and matters of common sense. The stubborn reply he got was that, where consumers were concerned, it was only "give me what I want."

Perhaps. But as Bob Dylan reminds us, the times are indeed a-changin', and I'd gladly hand over some of the bells and whistles from last week's Land Rover to hang on to the terrific fuel efficiency of this Fusion.

Sometimes a cup holder is just a cup holder.

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About the Author
Drive, She Said columnist

Lorraine Sommerfeld began writing when she was about to turn 40, because it was cheaper than a red convertible. Her weekly column Drive, She Said, while existing in the automobile section, is a nod to those of us who tend to turn the key rather than pop the hood. More


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