Detroit is a funny market when it comes to advertising. In addition to the ads, commercials and billboards that you might see or hear in other markets from national and regional advertisers, there is some advertising that is specific to the automotive industry, usually from tier 1 vendors trying to make a sale to one of the domestic automakers. As a result, there might be a billboard on I-75 about, for example, exhaust systems, suspension components or audio equipment that is targeted at a relatively small audience, the people at Chrysler, GM and Ford who make the final engineering and purchasing decisions.
Driving home from an errand I heard the announcer on WJR, “the great voice of the Great Lakes broadcasting from the golden tower of the Fisher Building”, start talking about the synergy when two musicians first meet, discuss common influences, then get together, plug in their instruments and start to write songs. I thought he was going to discuss when Lennon met McCartney or when Richards met Jagger but in fact it was a live commercial announcement for how Panasonic and Fender have partnered to sell Fender Premium Audio branded stereos to the OEMs. Apparently the deal that VW has to sell Panasonic made components labeled with Fender’s brand is not an exclusive one.
It’s interesting that Panasonic thinks that Fender is a brand name that has more cachet with consumers when it comes to premium audio equipment than the Panasonic brand name itself. It’s doubly interesting because Fender has, until now, not been a brand for consumer audio equipment, premium or otherwise. This deal should make it clear that just because your car may be branded with the name of a particular audio company doesn’t mean that specific company actually made or even sold what’s installed in your car. The fact that your car comes with Fender Premium Audio doesn’t mean that Fender made the stuff any more than buying a Bill Blass Edition Lincoln meant that you were getting upholstery that came out Mr. Blass’ workshops, if he had them. A brand is a brand, just a mark.
Actually it’s triply interesting since the announcer in the commercial touted “Fender’s distinctive sound”. Now I don’t play guitar but I do make a little bit of noise in key on the harmonica, and if there is something distinctive about the sound of Fender amps and loudspeaker cabinets it is their distinctive distortion. As you can see from that link, Jack Baruth discussed this back when the deal with VW was first announced, and we shared a laugh about this, but I never thought they’d actually use “Fender’s distinctive sound” to sell high fidelity audio systems.
The ideal amplifier, electronically speaking, adds no distinctive audio signature. What goes in comes out, only with more gain. There’s no such thing as the ideal amplifier, but makers of audio equipment used to reproduce music generally design and test equipment to have as little distortion as possible. Sometime in the history of rock and roll or the blues, though, someone figured out that if you turned the amps up loud enough so that the preamp would overdrive the output tubes to distortion levels (this was before transistors and other solid state components), you could end up with some very cool sounding music. Not all distortion is unpleasing. While odd order harmonics are what makes fingernails on a blackboard so grating, the ear tends to like even order harmonics. Guitar players and players of other electric instruments, like harmonica players digging through a box of half-century or older ceramic microphone cartridges, are going for the right combination of distortion. Also, if you chose the right sized drivers for your loudspeaker, you could get them to break up and distort in a pleasing and artistic manner as well. The net result is what players call “tone”.
That’s the reason why guitar players love the sound of amps like the Fender Bassman, and others derived from Fender’s 1950s classics like Marshalls. They love the distinctive distortion
That’s not the case with home audio equipment and likewise the stuff you want in your car. That gear is intended to be as much like the theoretical ideal amplifier as possible. I’m quite sure that the Fender branded audio equipment that is being sold to OEM’s by Panasonic has fine distortion specs. CNET ranked the stereo in the VW Beetle Turbo as their personal favorite for 2011, saying it competed well with audiophile home equipment. I’m sure that Fender Premium Audio equipment very accurately reproduces “Fender’s distinctive sound” well. It may not make my ears bleed but it does make my head hurt.
The last election cycle in the United States brought forth the term “low information voter”. That’s made me think about low information consumers. There is, after all, a reason why Panasonic has hooked up with Fender. The Fender brand has recognition well beyond the relatively small community of electric guitar players and other folks familiar with guitar amps. I don’t begrudge Fender and Panasonic and VW and whoever else decides to spec Fender Premium Audio in their cars the right to exploit that brand identification. I just think that they’re treating people like low information consumers and that most of Fender’s existing customers must laugh in derision when they hear about “Fender’s distinctive sound” when it comes to car audio. The fact that Panasonic and Fender think that the folks who make engineering and purchasing decisions at car companies are also low information consumers is noteworthy as well.
Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can get a parallax view at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks – RJS