Animal Capital in the Automobile Industry

Kartik Chugh


As the world is taking a break from its usual routine, many of us have found interesting ways to utilize our time. Of late, I have developed a keen interest in advertisements. In my free time, I’ve scrolled through hundreds of commercials in an attempt to understand how they communicate a product or a brand to the public. In that process, I have learned that a lot of advertisements deploy the instruments of semiotics (the study of signs and symbols and their use or interpretation) and mimicking to portray a well-crafted idea of a given product. While exploring the commercials of cars however, I saw a pattern emerging.

A considerable number of commercials utilized the figure of nature or animals to portray the desired idea of a given car. Looked differently, the animal capital has been and is being utilized by the automobile sector without acknowledgements. The capitalist mode of mass production has conveniently forgotten and repressed the material and symbolic politics of animal capital. In this article, I attempt to showcase the various ways in which animal capital has been deployed to produce cars in motion. By using the medium of advertisements and commercials I demonstrate how the semiotic interplay between cars and animals has been essential for the capitalist projects of automation. 

The animal capital has been deployed in four broad ways by the automobile industry. On the outset, I would like to clarify that these four ways can be overlapping in various degrees but have enough potentiality of their own to be boxed distinctively.

1. Materially

a. By using animal materiality in manufacturing the car:

In cars, the materiality of animals is widely used in all manners of components. High-end cars, in particular, have become synonymous with leather. Leather is used to wrap steering wheels, seatings, and to upholster car interiors. It is not just leather. Stearic acid and tallow (animal fat derivatives) are used to toughen tires and tubing. Steel is coated with lubricants made with animal products and even the car paint can have animal byproducts. For these reasons, it is almost impossible to buy a mass-manufactured luxury vehicle that is made without animal products. 

b. As labour involving actual animal bodies:

In 2015, Volkswagen came into limelight for rigging its diesel vehicles in a desperate attempt to pass emission tests. The automaker had installed manipulation devices in diesel engines – a software that activated their emission control only during lab testing. What came to be popularly known as the Dieselgate scandal involved around 11 million cars manufactured by the company since 2008. In the long chain of events concerning the Dieselgate scandal, what’s often overlooked is the part involving animals. If the scandal in itself wasn’t ridiculous enough – and it is quite awful – the automaker also tested the harmful effects of emissions on monkeys. The animal testing involved 10 macaques kept in sealed chambers which were then pumped with fumes from a Volkswagen Beetle. The health impacts of inhaling fumes were then measured. 

There is a long, unacknowledged, and unscrutinized history of animal testing in the automobile industry where the material bodies of the animals have replaced human bodies for testing the impacts of harmful emissions and even car crashes. According to an article published in The New York Times in 1991, more than 19,000 animals including dogs, rabbits, pigs, ferrets, and rats were killed in the 80s in performing automobile safety tests by General Motors alone. Account for other automakers and a century worth of time and the implications of the animal capital for testing seem legion. 

2. Semiotically 

a. As an attribute/function of the car:

In the latter half of the 20th century, cars were explicitly metaphorized and marketed as animals. With the investment of capital in the semiotics of advertisements and branding, the post-Fordist era saw a major shift of emphasis from material to symbolic economies. During this time, the animal metaphors became prominent in the market discourse. The mimicking started with the name and logo of the car company. Many cars, especially in the 60s and 70s, were named after animals. Currently, there are around 53 automakers with logos based on animals such as horses, snakes, birds and scorpions, leopards, lions, and bulls. The semiotic currency of animal metaphors is utilized widely to this date by various automakers for marketing their product. Consider the print advertisement of Kia Forte (2009)

The advertisement portrays the car and a animal hybrid in the spotlight. The caption at the bottom says that the car is “Fast and fuel efficient”. The advertisement utilizes the semiotics of the hybrid animal to communicate this idea brilliantly. The animal is a hybrid of a camel and a cheetah. The car is compared with this hybrid animal. It is fast like a cheetah and can go on without fuel for long stretches, just like a camel. Just like the hybrid animal is a new breed, the car is similarly the “first of its kind”. In the same ad-campaign, Kia also used the hybrid of a peacock and a tortoise to showcase how Forte combined elegance with safety. There are a large number of advertisements from Kia alone that use the semiotic capital of animals for marketing. Account for other automakers and the implications of animal capital of semiotics also seem legion. Apart from commercials, the semiotic currency of critters (their anatomy) has also been utilized in materializing the design of the cars. 

b. As the actual design of the car:

One of the groundbreaking commercials of Kia that became an instant success in recent times involved ballerinas, footballers, and interestingly, a tiger. The brand is known for its unconventional approach to design and the face of every Kia is its signature grille. The grille is inspired by the nose of a tiger and is hence named the tiger-nose grille. The broad, powerful grille nose sets the tone for purposeful, energetic designs. 

In the Jet Age of 1950s and early 60s, cars with fin tails such as Chrysler Dart (1957), and cars with wings such as the GM Firebird series (1954-59) became extremely popular. The streamlining aesthetics of the ‘finned’ vehicles were inspired by the anatomy of fishes, birds, and bats. In 1966, Lincoln Futura (1954) became a cultural icon when it was given a batlike face and fluted fins as it went on to become the Batmobile for the Batman TV series. Later, in the 60s, cars such as Aston Martin DB5 (1963), Ford 250 (1967), and Chevrolet Corvette Stingray (1968) were inspired by hippopotamus, lion, and alligator respectively. The capital of semiotics didn’t just produce cars in motion, it also produced in the most literal way, the material design and architecture of the car.

Lincoln Futura (1966) as the batmobile
Credits: Jennifer Graylock

The mimesis, therefore, is not just limited to car names, but the design and body of the cars are also semiotically and materially inspired by animals.

3. Technologically (By mimicking animal abilities as technology) 

The abilities of animals have long inspired humans to develop new technologies. This animal capital has also been utilized extensively by the automakers. For instance, the double-wishbone suspension system which helps to improve driving comfort on the bumpiest of the roads is inspired from birds. A wishbone is a forked bone found in birds which helps them withstand the adversities in flight.  The automakers have technologically mimicked this system in cars to make sure that they can endure the rigour of a journey. 

The Mercedes Benz Night View assist is a technology that aids the driver to see in the dark. The extra set of eyes (sensors) in the car is accomplished with detecting humans, animals, objects, and pavements with great precision. 

In one of the print advertisements of Mercedes-Benz Night View called The Bear (2016), one can see the performative capital of animals in marketing the mimicked technology of Night View assist. The advertisement shows a bear on a stage (the road) in the spotlight waving a hello. The curtains behind represent the forest. The car is equipped with the mimetic ability of Night Vision, so good that it’ll caution the driver by bringing the animal into the spotlight. The animal, in other words, can’t be missed in this performance. The technology is meant to considerably reduce accidents. Ironically, the technology which is meant to save the animal is inspired by the animal.  

4. Culturally (As a symbol) 

Since its launch in May 2005, Tata Ace, a micro truck better known as ‘Chhota Hathi’ revolutionized the cargo transport sector in India by enabling new businesses. The compact size of the Ace and its shorter turning radius meant that it could effortlessly operate in the narrow Indian streets and effectively transport small loads to villages and towns. The Ace not only met the unique needs of the Indian transportation sector at a low price, but it also created an entirely new niche of products (Palepu and Srinivasan, 2008). The Ace was an instant hit, a cultural sensation. 

The ad campaign featured two elephants and the tagline said, “Small is Big”. The ad suggested that the new Tata Ace was strong and stable like an elephant, in a smaller package. Next, a TV commercial aired in Tamil Nadu wherein, people called the Ace “Chinna Annai”, meaning “Little Elephant” in Tamil. Since then, Tata Ace has become synonymous with “Chotta Hathi”. By creating new opportunities for entrepreneurship and micro-businesses, Chotta Hathi became a huge success in the Indian subcontinent and has engraved itself in the emotions and culture of the masses. 

Video: Tata Ace Commercial (2015)

The example of Tata Ace also demonstrates how the various facets of Animal Capital interact and overlap. The metaphor of the elephant not only helps convey the functionality of the Tata Ace, but the semiotics of the elephant has also embellished into creating its identity and making it a cultural sensation. Zoom in and one can’t ignore the animal materialities that went into its production. 


The asymmetrical power relation between humans and animals renders the animals as passive. But if we acknowledge the various forms of labour that animals have and continue to perform for the automakers, animals can be thought of as active subjects who play an equally important role in shaping our cultures, technologies and histories.  


  • Shukin, N. (2009). Animal Capital: Rendering Life in Biopolitical Times. University of Minnesota Press.
  • Palepu, K.G. and Srinivasan, V. (2008). Tata Motors: the Tata Ace. Harvard Business School, Boston, MA.

2 responses to “Animal Capital in the Automobile Industry”

  1. Hey Kartik,
    Do you think the semiotic and technological uses of animal capital are in part due to their legacy – viz. cars replacing animal powered carriages? Watt’s measurement of engine output with ‘horsepower’ eg, persists.

    • The early cars in the Fordist era were fetishized as technological achievements of modernity. The new powers of locomotive were meant to displace the ‘unsanitray’ and ‘inefficient’ horse. While mass production of cars replaced its animal origin, the traces of animality were retained in the metaphor of “horsepower”. Initially, the idea was to displace the domestic horse with something more luxurious and efficient. It was only in the latter half of the 20th century that cars were explicitly metaphorized as animals. As the emphasis shifted from material to symbolic economies in the 70s, a lot of cars began to idealize ‘wild’ animals as the ultimate model of speed and mobility. This is when a lot of cars were named after wild animals. So yes, there is a legacy of the domestic horse but the initial cars were also meant to displace that legacy.

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