Commercial Culture: Imported From Detroit
I didn’t watch the Super Bowl last night because I was flying back from a conference in Washington D.C., but the above ad, the longest in Super Bowl history, played to promote the Chrysler 200. Here is what I know about the Chrysler 200 after watching the ad a few times.
- It comes in black.
- For money, Eminem will lend a song to it.
- It is capable of locomotion.
- It costs around $9 mil. to advertise.
- It represents the first time in branding history that a company has subtracted from the allure of a previously existent brand.
- It is unashamed, perhaps even combative, about its origins.
As far as the content of the ad goes, its appreciable on very small levels. The Hey, I’ve Been There! Factor. But watching this sleek luxury sedan drive through the artificially rain-slicked streets of Detroit as a gravel-voiced narrator asks me what my town knows of luxury before answering with some nonsense about us knowing plenty because we’ve lived without it for so long kind of undoes the notion that this is a feel-good moment for the town, a two minute advertisement for a city that needs a little brotherly love. Because this isn’t an ad about a city or the way of life in that city, but for a car that, for all you know, isn’t even built in Detroit, where the fires supposedly burn the hottest.*
*The car is built in Sterling Heights, MI, which counts.
And as this car travels through a town that’s been through hell and back, we see signs of reassurance. There’s an American flag flying proud in the wind. The happily nodding doorman. The football team running in the cold. A figure skater on the ice. The magnificent Fox Theatre with its KEEP DETROIT BEAUTIFUL marquee. But the truth of the matter is that this is the same propaganda featured in every American car commercial, only now they’re being tied to a luxury vehicle with a $20,000 MSRP. This makes all the underdog imagery–the Spirit of Detroit, Joe Louis’ fist, Diego Rivera’s fresco of a Ford factory (which is unintentionally ironic for reasons I hope I don’t need to go into)–that much more insulting. A company actually spent nine million dollars to make Detroit look broken, but looking to make a comeback with the help of Americans wealthy or stupid enough to take a flier on an expensive car made by a company with a recent history of failing to make appealing expensive cars.
It’s the nine million dollars that get at me, particularly when Eminem climbs out of the car, walks into a venue too-small for him to perform at, turns heel to the choir that is trying to imbue this commercial with the epic flare required in the field of car salesmanship and says “This is the Motor City.” Not too long ago Chrysler and GM went to Congress and asked for a government bail out of a failing industry. They did this despite the fact that they were pocketing bonuses large enough to save a significant portion of Detroit’s most financially destitute from foreclosing on their homes, and they did so in private jets. Not only were they (rightly) kicked around by the media, the city of Detroit was, too. They got that bailout, and things look to be better for the company. They posted a profit, though it was smaller than Ford’s or GM’s, but considering that the weight of Detroit or the American manufacturing industry’s problems don’t exactly fall on Chrysler’s shoulders, that’s fine. It’s also fine that a lot of Detroiters will look at the commercial and think of it not as some heartless, derivative crap, but as an ernest expression of appreciation for the city, millionaires extending the olive branch and saying “We, too, are Detroiters.”
But I can’t help myself from wondering how an expensive commercial played during the nation’s largest televised event, one that hopes to trade in depression and the husks of abandoned buildings for a successful luxury model, isn’t the very poster child of exploitation. There won’t be many Chrysler 200s in Detroit driveways, and there won’t be many formerly unemployed factory workers making the morning commute to a new plant in Flint or Woodhaven or Warren to build them. But there will always be this ad, this ad and its nine million dollar price tag and its snappy tag line, that the Chrysler 200 is imported from Detroit. For all that the rest of the country knows about the city, Detroit may as well be another country, an amputated limb best remembered for the glories it had and the pain it eventually caused. But Chrysler and its car are not from that country, and no amount of money will buy its way in.
Paul Arrand Rodgers
Paul Arrand Rodgers has this blog, and that's about it.