Monday, February 07, 2011

Imported from Detroit

[Warning: Big Deep Discussion over a TV advertisement. Yeah, I really do have that much time on my hands.]

For the last few years now, we've gone over to visit friends, nosh on goodies, and watch -- well, not the Superbowl, actually, but the commercials presented during the Superbowl. None of us are what you'd call sports fans, but we all enjoy seeing the cleverness of ad agencies on full display like courting peacocks.

My favorite ad, which I'd already seen online, was sadly chopped for TV (fortunately, there's always YouTube to fall back on). There were several other clever ads this year. But here's the one that struck me hardest:

The "Born of Fire" ad.

It is visually arresting, beautifully filmed. It's clearly reaching out to a younger demographic, one that probably never would have considered buying a Chrysler car. It's doing damage control for a city that's been described as in a full economic depression and revealed as physically gone to ruin. It feels edgy; it projects streetwise tenacity and toughness. It's iconic. I won't be the least bit surprised if it wins a Clio.

But I think Fen summed it up well: "I don't feel good after watching this commercial."

That's the principal thing this ad is missing. It lacks warmth and optimism. Detroit, which has been in decline for decades, is a place where the light has gone out of people's eyes. The real Detroit is the closest thing to hell on earth one is likely to find in America. And although Wieden + Kennedy, the ad agency which created this spot, does its utmost to show off Detroit to advantage, just beneath the display of WPA murals and heroic sculptures there is a deep undercurrent of desperation. I think most viewers can sense that, even if they don't see it. Continuing to harbor hope against all the odds is a particular American value, and this ad projects no hope at all.

And there's another thing: it doesn't answer its own question. What does a city like Detroit know about luxury? It obviously knows plenty about being streetwise, about physical labor, about pushing on through despair. It knows about its own history of making and selling automobiles to the world. It knows about Eminem and the new generation of car buyers it must reach successfully if Chrysler is to stay afloat. But it doesn't show that it knows anything about luxury, about the quality of opulence or projection of affluence, or about the people who are drawn to such qualities. Other than desultory lip service in the voiceover, these are values almost wholly missing from this ad.

It doesn't even spend much time showing you the car it's supposedly selling. But that's because it isn't really selling a car. It's selling Detroit. And it's urgently hoping you will buy.

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