Friday, February 11, 2011

On the magical thinking coming out of Chrysler

If you watched the Superbowl, you probably saw the Chrysler ad (AKA one of two Eminem Superbowl ads.) If not, you can watch it here:



Beautifully filmed, beautifully edited, it's a love song to Detroit. Told by Eminem. And it starts with a question:

What does this city know about luxury?

And I've got some stats that indicate the answer would be "not much." The lead in a 2009 Wall Street Journal story goes like this:

They call this the Motor City, but you have to leave town to buy a Chrysler or a Jeep.

The Journal goes on to note that Borders had just closed its last Detroit store, and that Starbucks, "known for saturating U.S. cities with its storefronts, has only four left in this city of 900,000 after closures last summer." The story then points out that there are no national grocery stores in Detroit.

That was then, in 2009. What about now?

Well, the good news is that unemployment decreased in 2010 (according to preliminary data) to just 11.1 percent, down from 14.9 percent in 2009.

Still, an 11 percent unemployment rate is higher than the high national average and does not signify the return from hell mentioned in the Chrysler ad.

And Starbucks looks like it has reduced its Detroit offerings to just three stores in the metropolitan area. Those lucky few with the money to splurge on affordable luxuries will have more luck finding a Starbucks over the Canadian border in Windsor.

And what of Chrysler's presence in the Motor City? The company headquarters can be found in Auburn Hills, a Detroit suburb. Its CEO is Italian-born Sergio Marchionne, who also heads up Fiat, based in Italy. However, according to the Chrysler website, there IS a Chrysler dealer within the city limits!

But though Detroit has its very own Chrysler dealer, it remains, as the ad acknowledges, "no one's Emerald City." It is in fact a city still firmly situated in the hell of high unemployment, poverty and abandonment. In 2010, the Wall Street Journal ran a story about the latest hit to the city: black flight:

Today, frustrated by plummeting property values and high crime, many diehards have hit their breaking point. Their exodus is consigning borderline neighborhoods to full-blown blight and putting prime residential areas at risk.

When the black middle class abandons you years after the white middle class fled, what remains? Vandalism, poverty and blight. So when Eminem ends the ad with "This is the Motor City. And this is what we do," I really don't know what they mean. Because the Motor City is in terrible shape right now, even worse than our economy at large.

Which makes Chrysler's tag - "imported from Detroit" - all the more prescient. The film shows us Detroit as we once knew it, our Motor City, our Motown, the center of the American auto industry. But that once proud American city is fast becoming a third world entity in the middle of America, a place stricken by poverty and lack of leadership. The Chrysler ad that heralds the great American city of Detroit is also a reflection of our utter blindness to the reality of today's economy.

Let's hope Chrysler pulls its head out of the sand, puts its money where its mouth is, and invests wisely in its business and in Detroit. Let's hope that Chrysler can recover - thanks in part to its second federal bailout - and reclaim its once proud heritage as a great American auto manufacturer. Otherwise Chrysler's message, as conveyed by this very expensive Superbowl ad, is utterly meaningless.

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