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Rust-ploitation: Imported from Detroit…

February 7, 2011

Exported to the world

It’s been a while.  Been a might busy with my return to graduate school.

However, just as I was taking the first evening off in quite some time, Facebook, various blogs, and the internet in general seemed to be lighting on fire with the buzz about one of the ads aired during the game.  “A lovely commercial that pays tribute to a beautiful city,” one person notes on the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Facebook page.  On Flint Expatriates, another says, “Yes, it’s time we stopped apologizing.”  (What, exactly, ‘we’ should stop apologizing for, is not mentioned.)  In general, the consensus was this was the best ad of the whole evening, it was about Detroit, was making lots of people cry (in the good way it was suggested), had Eminem in it, and was (I’m approximating/paraphrasing here because I didn’t get to see it ‘live’) about two or three cases full of awesomesauce.

I’ve been so utterly and impossibly moved by this commercial though–I’m literally shaking as I type this–that I simply have to post about it.  I’m a little  embarrassed that it’s taken a COMMERCIAL to get me going when I’ve been reading and seeing and engaged in so a broad range of interesting things, but c’est la vie!

Having returned home and seen the video on Youtube, I must say, as an interested follower/observer of marketing/branding design, commercials, and my down-trodden Rust Belt home, this is probably one of the most finely crafted and well-executed advertisements I have EVER seen, contemporary or otherwise.  The wave of aplomb from those back home and elsewhere is partial proof of that, and with campaigns like “Pure Michigan,” we’ve gotten used to seriously well done advertising.  Emotionally, it’s as evocative, skillful, and compelling as Apple’s infamous “1984” and as honest, pragmatic, and candid about its subject as the Ministry of Information’s unneeded (thankfully) “Keep Calm and Carry On” poster was about its own in 1939.

In the two-minute commercial, a first in the Super Bowl’s history at such a length (and expense), we see cuts and quick edits of steaming smoke stacks of Marathon’s oil refinery, Detroit road-way infrastructure, Diego Rivera’s “Detroit Industry,” a cute skater in Campus Martius, Marshall Fredericks’ “Spirit of Detroit,” young professionals walking to work, traffic cops directing traffic, and lots of shots of some pretty great architecture–historic to Modern–that’s still standing and in some cases still occupied, set against the gleams and curves of a new car and to the familiar and quintessential Detroit tune of “Lose Yourself” by Eminem.  Marshal Mathers stars in the commercial and utters the final, powerful line which speaks to the city’s resilience, strength, hard work, knowledge, conviction:

“This is the Motor City, and this is what we do.”

So, is this brilliantly executed bit of marketing a new direction for the “Pure Michigan” campaign, to craft the State of Michigan’s tremendous potential in a profoundly honest, industrial-roots sort of way?  Is it the first step from the City of Detroit, no longer satisfied to be reported on, standing up, and taking a proactive leap forward?  Was it the beleaguered auto manufacturers taking responsibility for the part they played in leading Detroit and cities like it straight down Good Intentions Blvd. and into Hell in the first place? Was this the sign of a renewed and optimistic pledge committing themselves to the sort of localized, placed-based, craftsman-oriented, civic-minded and engaged companies they once were? Is it the inspiring collaboration of the creative and entrepreneurial scene that’s being grown by locals and new residents alike in the region?

No.  It’s none of these things.  The estimated $9 million dollar commercial (that’s $75,000 a second, if you’re keeping track of that stuff) is part of Chrysler Group LLC’s latest marketing campaign and slogan, “Imported from Detroit.”  The company famous for being run into the ground and getting a government bailout in 1979 is now a private company (it’s owned by Cerberus Capital Management, the U.S. government, and Fiat SpA and is not a public stock offering like Ford or GM), currently governed in great part by Fiat SpA, which owns 25% of Chrysler and, if financial news is accurate, will likely be 51% foreign-owned by the time the company goes goes public again, when and if it exits bankruptcy reorganization. One could have an interesting conversation about which bailout, exactly, it’s recovering from, since the first bailout and subsequent billions in government loans to keep the company afloat, were lost as part of the government restructuring process. (I’m admittedly out of my league when it comes to keeping tabs on the details and financial aspects of the bailout and Chrysler’s tumultuous history of management, bailouts, and poor economics and I apologize in advance for any errors.)

And the car itself?  From what I can see on the website, it’s less the scrappy, “hell-and-back”-forged luxury car suggested by the commercial, and more the cheapest entry in the midsize car market (think Chevy Malibu, Toyota Camry, Nissan Altima, and Ford Fusion) that you would expect from the re-branding of the old and tired Sebring Sedan. While the new engine is quietly praised within the industry, the car also gets the worst gas mileage and has the least interior and cargo room of all the others to accommodate this performance and price point.  I find it nearly impossible to believe that it’s the sort of car Eminem would ever be caught dead in (outside of a commercially paid endorsement, that is).

So, at the end of the day, this commercial is, as great commercials do, exploiting the raw, visceral connection we Michiganders and Rust Beltians have to the tough, no-nonsense, take-it-or-leave-it, rise up from the ashes mentality and emotional power that is born of routinely being the butt of every hard-knock, stats quoting, economic, demographic, and cultural bad news story for the last half century.  I can respect that.  My family worked those lines, and many others.  I grew up and lived in the shadows and bright points of light around Flint, MI.  I traveled all over and truly believe that few places have as much potential as the former engines of war and production that once drove the entire U.S. economy.

But I’m disgusted by this ad.  What I can’t respect is the continued exploitation–now extended to the point of being rust-ploitation–of our communities to make a few more bucks.  Coming from one of the companies that took us by the hand and helped lead places like Detroit to become the broken, troubled, and abandoned shells they now are now is a level of hypocritical, self-serving aggrandizement of what’s great about these cities and their people that’s so unspeakably insulting and unforgivable that I would never be able to fully express how this ad makes me really feel. That’s not to say these corporations were the only reason for the city’s decline. Far from it.  But no business with an impact like that, especially not Chrysler or GM, deserves the praise so many are placing upon them.

No company that so deliberately and exactingly exploits the strengths and resources of places like Detroit or Flint or anywhere else, for the purpose of selling anything less than the very people and their power deserves any praise, flippant or otherwise.  The one thing that moderates my academicly influenced rage is the fact that none of you will be going out and buying a Chrysler 200 anyway.  For the vast majority of you, this is nothing but a passing note on your facebook page as you go about your day as physical embodiments of the strength, passion, and work ethic noted in the message, too busy with too many great things to give it, to say nothing of the product, much thought at all.

THAT is the Motor/Vehicle City and that is what you do.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. Jodie Wright permalink
    February 7, 2011 5:01 pm

    So did you like the commercial or not?
    In the third paragraph of your blog it seems you are praising it, in the last paragraph you are bashing it. I’m confused.

  2. Alex permalink
    February 7, 2011 8:02 pm

    Great read on the commercial. As I type this, I can look at Highland Park and see Chrysler’s story and how they “do”.

  3. February 10, 2011 4:59 am

    Jodie- I think that last paragraph makes it very obvious I don’t like it.

    The problem is not the meaning of the commercial, which I do think is worthy of praise and should be more broadly communicated. NOT, as a car commercial, however. You can’t simply separate that message from its intended use and intent to sell us something–in this case, a mediocre car. It’s incredibly important to understand who’s using this commercial and why: a privately owned company that just got $15 billion in tax-payer funded bailout money that’s already been through one bankruptcy bailout in the past.

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