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.
“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.”
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.