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The Dude
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By Mike Cassidy
Mercury News Columnist
Posted: 01/12/2009 03:11:00 PM PST

Anybody who's tuned in to the NFL playoffs has heard the Hyundai ad offering a financial safety valve to skittish car-buyers. Me? I usually pay no attention to television ads, but this one stopped me cold.

"What did he just say?" I asked my wife, Alice. And as if to underscore the Bizarro World nature of the economic crisis, we actually used the DVR not to skip through a commercial, but to replay it.

"Right now buy any new Hyundai,'' the voice-over guy was saying, "and if in the next year, you lose your income, we'll let you return it.''

The marketing move was, to me, just another sign of how bad the economy has gotten. Forget zero-percent car loans. Here was a company practically paying you to buy a new car.

Hey brother, can you spare a Hyundai?

The Hyundai deal is understandable, of course. Auto companies last week reported another round of steep sales declines. And "losing your income" is something many are past worrying about and are instead planning on. The Hyundai spot, which I heard over and over, filled me with gloom, which is never the intent of a car ad.

In fact, the ad's words were all about perseverance and the faith Hyundai has in all of us as consumers. "We're all in this together," the Hyundai pitchman says in one version, "and we'll all get through it together."

It's a lovely thought — being all in this together — even if it's not a lovely spot to be in. But it isn't exactly true, is it?

Some are in it a bit more than others. Some of us can afford a new car, even if we've adjusted from the idea of an Escalade to an Elantra.

And some of us can't.

Hyundai might be able to risk some corporate capital on a promotion while some of us might need to sock away every penny in the likely event that the recession drags on and job losses grow and rainy day savings are washed away.

We are living in a time of clearly defining wants and needs, as my brother-in-law preached over and over during our holiday gatherings. It's old-school advice that is making a big-time comeback.

It could be one of the good things to come out of the current economic pain. We may well be entering a new era of austerity, or at least common sense, in personal finance and spending. Holiday receipts were way down in stores and online. Parties were subdued. Pennies were pinched.

Waterford Wedgewood has gone into receivership. Who needs crystal and china? The Rainbow Room grill in New York is closing. Fifty-three bucks for a steak? No thanks. Citibank is running ads not to push the idea of satisfying wants with home equity loans, but rather to help you with your needs, like saving your house from foreclosure.

Wanting something is not the same as needing it, we've discovered. And being able to finance a purchase is not the same as being able to afford it.

The new fiscal discipline has surely helped some consumers and families prepare for the pain to come. But it's also contributed to the economic drag — further proof that we're not all in this together, or at least that what we're in is different depending on our circumstances.

We'd all be wise to remember how we got into this mess — bad loans, overconsumption and a healthy dose of greed on Wall Street. Pulling back on spending is prudent.

As credit markets thaw, there are signs that new temptations might present themselves. As soon as GMAC received its $6 billion in federal bailout money it announced that it would begin making riskier loans. And General Motors said it would offer very low interest rates. The moves are no doubt necessary to rescue foundering GM. They might also benefit car shoppers who have steady incomes and secure jobs.

Just remember: It may be true that what's good for GM is good for the country. But it might not be good for you.
 
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