Detroit, Eminem and Chrysler’s Geographic Imagination

Like many geographers, I found myself intrigued by the Super Bowl advertisement that Chrysler ran, a two-minute piece featuring musician Eminem and trumpeting the city of Detroit.  It’s an interesting ad for a number of reasons.  Certainly part of the intrigue comes from Detroit’s position as the butt of jokes, and the focus of umpteen photo essays of its landscape of decline.  The left points at the city as evidence of the failures of capitalism, while the right claims its decline was caused by strong labor unions and too-big civic governance.  Either way, with a city population rapidly declining — down below 900,000 by latest estimates, less than half its 1950 peak — and the associated economic and fiscal problems, we can all agree that Detroit has its problems.

A lot of the debate over this ad thus far has been about the Detroit imagination presented in the ad.  Some praised the ad as being (finally) a positive piece about a city that desperately needed it, and truth of life in the city for disbelievers.  Others said the ad was full of falsehood, empty praise for a place beyond broken.  Of course, we should all remember that Chrysler’s presentation of this place, whether “true” or “false” was a message with a purpose, and that purpose is to sell cars.  The most powerful tool that advertisers have is the evocation of emotional response, and doing so effectively sells product.  I mean, think about it: the other advertisement to gain rave reviews from this year’s Super Bowl was the “Little Vader” piece from Volkswagen, one of Chrysler’s competitors.  Why?  Well, who hasn’t imagined themselves trying to use The Force, or hasn’t seen their kids doing the same and wished it’d come true if only for an instant?

Two effective car commercials, neither of which featured much about the cars on display.  That’s not an accident.  Cars themselves don’t typically arouse the same emotions as childhood memories.  Chrysler tapped into something different, an emotional response that is perhaps nearly as powerful: the tendency to root for the underdog.  It happens in sports — what basketball fan hasn’t cheered for a tiny 16-seed school in the NCAA tournament who find themselves tied with Duke as the clock runs out? — it’s used in movies and television, and Chrysler’s asking you to root for the underdog with your next car purchase. It’s an interesting emotion to ask for, and the ad does so effectively, by presenting an imaginary that’s on track with what we’ve seen in those photo essays, to a point.  The ad brings something different to the mix: that amongst these ruins, there’s still 900,000 people, and those people are proud of their city with all of its faults.  I’ve always rooted for Detroit, but at the end of the first viewing, I was genuinely excited to see the big comeback this ad was inherently promising.  I don’t think I was alone.

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“Imported from Detroit.”  That’s the advertisement’s tagline, and it’s from this line that I think we can sense a certain disconnect.  Of course, there’s the obvious one, that something from Detroit is obviously not imported, because this city is still part of the United States, though it’s an obvious hat-tip to Italian automaker Fiat’s freshly minted ownership of Chrysler.  In that alone, it seems nothing more than a clever play on words.  I think there’s more to it, geographically speaking.

I think the concept that these cars are “Imported,” in a way, necessarily distances Chrysler from urban geographic imagination that it’s promoting in this commercial.  Certainly, Detroit has its problems and the ad embraces those to a point, strictly for an emotional response.  By suggesting that something could be imported from Detroit, a political, economic and ultimately spatial separation is suggested through language.  It’s implied that Detroit’s many problems, those which give it the underdog status, are distant from those viewers who are supposed to be rooting the city on.  Those problems, while scary, don’t actually threaten the viewer/consumer.  Indeed, to threaten the viewer/consumer with images of economic instability undermines the goal of the commercial (spending) by prompting thrift, and the purchase of a brand new car is never a thrifty decision.

But as Foucault reminds us, in any discourse, what is left unsaid is just as important as what is said.  In this case, Chrysler conveniently discards causality in this advertisement.  Regardless of your opinion of the genesis of Detroit’s decline, I think we can agree that Chrysler played a big role.  Chrysler automobiles have never been known as terribly reliable, nor very high quality.  This reputation had drastic, long-term consequences: the company nearly collapsed in the late 1970s, before being rescued by Lee Iacocca. Despite inventing the minivan and buying the plucky Jeep brand in the 1980s, Chrysler again nearly died in the 1990s before being purchased by Daimler.  Even Daimler, the folks behind Mercedes-Benz, couldn’t save the company, unloading Chrysler to a private capital company in the mid-2000s before being it was purchased in bankruptcy by Fiat.

Like other Detroit brands, Chrysler was unwilling to compete with imports on quality and value through the latter decades of the 20th century.  The brazen ignorance of the Big Three automakers, including Chrysler, to changing demand and their seemingly incompetent and belated attempts to adapt proved costly to both their reputations, and to the city. The old business model no longer worked, destroying the companies’ solvency.  Instead of competing through innovation, the automakers sought profit by slashing costs, building products of diminishing quality, automating the workforce and outsourcing jobs.  Beyond all of those factors that pundits bicker about, the loss of those good-paying jobs is what put Detroit on life-support.  Chrysler was one of the guilty parties, and building decades of junk cars didn’t entice consumer demand and bring jobs back.

By the 1990s, damage was already done, to both Detroit and to Chrysler.  Residents streamed to the suburbs, leaving Detroit with a further diminishing taxbase to fund its social needs and sending the city into further down the seemingly endless cycle of decline.  Chrysler’s reputation hit rock-bottom, and its sales suffered. Chrysler wasn’t alone in its tarnished image; though less effected by the quality fallout, both GM and Ford lost millions of customers to imports.  By 2011, being labeled as a “domestic” car was a liability for the automakers.  GM promoted its cars as “German-inspired,” while Chrysler labeled its new 200 model, one that’s marketed as better than the cars it used to sell, as “Imported from Detroit.”

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The ad’s effectiveness is unquestioned. By the end, even skeptical viewers want to see Detroit succeed, making the ad’s argument, that Chrysler’s success is Detroit’s success, seem palatable.  Constructing a geographic imagination of Detroit as a soulful, proud place that just needs a hand proves to be an effective, if exploitative, device for selling.  Certainly Detroit’s decline is sad, the ad tugs at those heartstrings and makes you root for that comeback so those proud folks who live there can have a city worthy of such braggadocio.  However, by mobilizing this imagery of this city, and tagging the ad as “Imported from Detroit,” Chrysler seeks to distance itself from culpability for the city’s long decline.  It isn’t the same Chrysler that helped pull the rug out from this place, the tagline reminds you.  It’s a different Chrysler that’s learned its lesson, now featuring “imported” cars that will somehow enrich a downtrodden sorta-American city with its profits.

In essence, the geographic imaginaries Chrysler presents are a spatially cognitive dissonance.

Author: Andrew Shears

Andrew Shears is an Assistant Professor of Geography at Mansfield University in Mansfield, Pennsylvania. His research interests lie at an intersection of the human-environmental nexus, and includes branches of mapping, technological, memorialization and urban geographies. He lives in Wellsboro, Pennsylvania with his wife Amy, a professional photographer.

6 thoughts on “Detroit, Eminem and Chrysler’s Geographic Imagination”

  1. I interpreted the tagline a little differently from you: I took it mean that, rather than being imported from overseas, the car is from the place that true American cars have always originated: Detroit. I think this was a reference to the broadly renewed calls for America to start making things again, a patriotic plug to start re-associate “luxury” with cars made closer to home. What you took as a spatial disconnect, expatriating Detroit by using the term “import”, I regarded as a simple ironic device. Even the way that the words appear on the screen: IMPORTED…FROM… [Germany?Japan? Mexico?] is revealed to be a place name of our own, not a foreign place. In my opinion, the visual build-up (which I thought was a gorgeous sequence) of an undeniably American urban territory, both its grandeur and its wounds, its art and its industry, its mansions and its ruins, its towers and its people, serves up a strong connection between an American audience and the location of the clip’s climax.
    My remaining thought was exactly how much of a Chrysler vehicle actually manufactured and assembled in the state of Michigan, and therefore could plausibly be claimed to be from Detroit in any true geographic sense.

  2. As a Detroit native, I definitely felt pride in seeing the commercial. But Detroiters get beat up so much in the media that we love anything that even sort of makes us look good. I watched the commercial, twice, and that’s it. I let it go and moved on. I took the tag line differently… instantly I felt like there was kind of something wrong. I thought about victims of Hurricane Katrina being called refugees. To imply that these cars are imported from Detroit is to imply that there is something separate and apart from Detroit. That it is some vague, faceless other that is somehow not like you. The import didn’t imply luxury like we often imagine when we think of imports, like BMW or Mercedes-Benz. It said, hey yeah, here is this tough city, that’s nothing like you and yet we have this car to sell you because we’re bad-ass and you’re bad ass and Eminem is definitely bad ass.

    I love my hometown. I think Detroiters are the only people in the world who celebrate our area code date 3/13 as a holiday. But, as an expatriate living in another city, I have perspective and being out of Detroit, I see that everything that looks good isn’t good for me. Therefore, I just don’t want to see Detroit keep being taken advantage of.

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