The auto industry is changing to survive. Why are car commercials still the same?
Detroit. Few places in the world can conjure up such vivid images in just two syllables. Perhaps Paris or New York, with their mentally available, easily fridge-magneted global brands come close, but Detroit – with a declining population of just over 600,000 (roughly one 14th of New York's) – has become a global shorthand for post-industrial urban wasteland around the world.
Whether it’s the grand classical architecture of Michigan Central Station, mothballed since 1988, or the cavernous skeleton of the abandoned Packard plant, Detroit is the spiritual home of rubble porn, a phenomenon reserved mostly for voyeuristic Vice articles and urban explorers, while Detroit’s social and economic struggles have been well documented. A much publicized victim of the automotive industry, which once supported 285,000 jobs, but now only employs around 10,000, Detroit was also the most dramatic victim of the white flight to the suburbs, a process expedited by the racially prejudiced housing policy of Redlining in the mid 20th century, and effectively sealed by the catastrophic Detroit Riots of 1967.
With the dubious honour of regularly topping lists of most dangerous cities in America, having a former mayor currently serving a 28-year sentence for corruption and racketeering, beset by ‘justifiable homicides’ from vigilante justice groups and taking the unprecedented step officially filing for bankruptcy in 2013, it is no surprise that a former Detroit police chief and a British tabloid have both compared the city unfavourably to the Wild West in recent years.
The Wild West is an interesting choice of metaphor, and peculiarly apt for Detroit. It forms a key part of what cultural historian Richard Slotkin has called the Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth Century America. As Slotkin’s argument goes, following the incorporation of the Western states in the 1890s, the US had no more physical frontiers to conquer, so instead it turned to foreign entanglements, flexing economic muscle on the global stage and popular culture. It is no surprise that the Western boomed as the movie genre of choice just as the Cold War was at its zenith, and that the genre declined rapidly from a high of 29 releases in 1971 to only seven in 1974, as public opinion shifted decisively against the war in Vietnam.
Yet if there is one area of American – and perhaps even global – culture in which the Myth of the Frontier lives on, it is in the automotive industry. Even down to the names. The Dodge Journey, the Fords Escape, Explorer and Edge, the Subarus Outback and Forester, the Jeep Cherokee and the Toyota Highlander all evoke a sense of rugged, edge of the habitable world, intrepid exploration. The car the extension of the Frontier spirit and the sense of dominance over a Wild West which needs to be tamed. The Nissan Navarra pickup truck, which has a legacy of suitably rugged (and sometimes quite bizarre) commericals has long been marketed in North America as the Nissan Frontier.
Yet at the same time the frontier tropes of the automotive industry – long drives among California Redwoods (usually conducted solo, by a man), inexplicable manoeuvres on salt flats, the empowering joy of the open road, have become a very recognizable, and increasingly dated set of clichés. A growing concern for the environment, unstable petroleum prices and a bits-and-pieces economic recovery have all hit demands for new cars, while the chronic congestion of car Meccas such as Los Angeles make the myth of the open road seem even more mythical for many.
Both Ford and GM have reported a recent decline in car sales, while the Helsinki Times recently claimed that “The future resident of Helsinki will not own a car.” The rise of Uber has made travelling by car in major cities cheaper and easier to outsource to a professional, while millennials are regularly cited as not valuing possessions in the same way their parents’ generations did. The looming prospect of self-driving cars has the potential to hang a dark shadow over the automotive industry, the frontier ideal of autonomy on the open road replaced by the digital age ideal of convenience on demand.
All of which brings us back to Detroit, the Motown which spectacularly lost its Mojo. Seasoned Detroit watchers have noticed a bit of a renaissance in the city, with artists, creative industries and start ups returning to the city seeking cheap rents and a new sense of community away from the booming impersonal urban centres elsewhere. Of particular fascination are the vast empty lots, which are gradually being reclaimed by natural forces, offering the prospect (if you squint hard enough) of a new, pastoral, ecologically sensitive urbanism, while select neighbourhoods are playing host to vibrant craft and independent scenes. The National League of Cities has even turned the Wild West image on its head, describing the Michigan city as “The Wired, Wild West of Community Engagement”.
Of course, global economies are not built on artisan coffee and hemp products alone, regardless of what some residents of Shoreditch, Williamsburg or Shimokitazawa might say, but recent developments in Detroit do speak to what may be the primary challenge to car manufacturers globally. Put simply, we want to live in cities again, and more specifically, inner cities. Our formerly derelict and under-invested urban centres have become our new frontier: new wildernesses which we are seeking to tame and explore. With a few notable exceptions (Detroit being one of them), the majority of cities around the world are set to grow over the next decade, and with it will come new demands on mobility, finances and space optimization. When roads are blocked with gridlock, when incomes are spent on spiralling rents, and when parking space becomes a luxury premium, cars simply don’t hold the same functional or emotional appeal that they once did.
This does not necessarily spell the end of the car, nor the decline of the great automotive manufacturers. But it almost certainly requires a revaluation of the cultural codes and emotional cues marketers use to sell them. On this front, Cadillac have made a bold start, dropping the conventional clichés for a focus on young intellectual pioneers and achievers in their Dare Greatly campaign. The frontier is there, but it’s an urban, human frontier – the question remains, what role might the car play in conquering it.
Image source: Nick Van Mead via The Guardian
- Article by Josh Dickins