Detroit will try anything, even melancholia, to sell cars, even to women. Our automakers are finally into quality, having learned their lesson from the Japanese, the Germans and the Koreans, and now build tougher and more reliable cars. Changing perceptions is more difficult. Detroit is betting that sadness, sorrow, woe and gloom, along with a female version of macho, can tease customers back into the showrooms. Interesting work, if you can get it.
General Motors huffs and puffs to remain the No. 1 automaker in the world, so far managing to stay just ahead of Toyota. The company that Henry Ford built is trying to stay out of bankruptcy by closing plants, and may sell off its prestigious foreign badges, including the elegant Jaguar, the politically correct Volvo and Land Rover, the scourge of elephants, rhinos and hippopotami.
Hard times will make a monkey eat red pepper, as the wisest man I ever knew (Daddy, of course) was fond of saying, and Labor Day, once a joyous occasion in Detroit, is this year just another day to fret. In a remarkable bit of pushing the advertising envelope, a television commercial for the new Ford Freestyle, an SUV that was left out in the rain to shrink to about half the size of the behemoths that have taken over the narrow streets in nearly every city, a mom and a dad start out for a day at the beach with a back seat full of happy, smiling kids.
The car moves across desert and plain, through Norman Rockwell country, down hill and past dale, and home again after a good time is had by all. Then the Ford stops, Dad gets out, pulling his little duffel bag with him, and looks gratefully at his wife. She's in the driver's seat, of course. "Thanks for inviting me along," he says, and to the kids, adds: "I'll see you next week." The wife gives him a wan but relieved smile, the little family dog barks a sad little bark, and Mom and the kids drive away in what critics are calling "the Divorcemobile."
"This is perhaps the weirdest commercial I've covered," observes Seth Stevenson, an automobile writer, in Slate, the online magazine. "It is a freakish mash-up, blending a classically boring car ad with a bizarre stab at social commentary. I can't for the life of me see what Ford hopes to achieve here."
Maybe it's to make divorced wives and children of divorce feel better, to make them feel included in the warm and cuddly fantasy world of television commercials. Nothing wrong with that. Or maybe it's to make women feel more in control, even when they aren't. The man in the Ford commercial is a bit of a wimp -- "wet," as the British say -- and some critics say he looks gay, or at least metrosexual. The wife doesn't look particularly sad that she's not taking him home with her. Neither do the kids.
It's not just Ford. In a commercial for Hummer, the monster SUV that's more Abrams tank than something fit for the road, two moms are minding their children at a playground swing. One of the other kids shoves her child off the swing, and the mother of the shoving kid just shrugs. That does it. The mom of the shovee races off to buy a Hummer, and we're to conclude that she may not necessarily intend to run over the next kid who shoves her child off a swing, but now she's got the moving sheet metal to take her half of the highway of life out of the middle of the road.
Ford and Hummer and the rest of Detroit are trying to survive in the era of $3 a gallon gasoline, and they're stuck with cars the size of trucks. Sympathy for the plight of American automakers is not what it used to be. Republicans in Michigan are miffed that George W. Bush and his friends in Congress are saying that Detroit has brought its woes on itself, and should focus, like the Japanese and the Koreans, on building more "relevant" vehicles. Michigan Republicans think they have a shot at electing a governor this year and in 2008 turning the state from blue to red for the first time in 18 years. Indifference by their friends in Washington stings.
Television commercials reflect reality far more accurately than prime-time comedies and PBS documentaries, and divorce and broken homes are our reality, shorn of stigma but not sadness. So are wrecks on the highway, flat tires in the rain and angst around Granny's deathbed. Is that the next stop on the road to the showroom?