Editorial: Don't Stop Believing

Edward Niedermeyer
by Edward Niedermeyer
editorial don t stop believing

After a weekend of concept-touting and audacious hoping, Detroit is praying that the bitter taste of bailout beggary will be cleansed by the redemptive powers of PR. From the sight of hundreds of rallying GM workers to a lineup of future concepts, the North American International Auto Show played host to a number of highly-managed media messages aimed at convincing skeptics that it’s no longer such a lonely world for American automakers. But the emphasis on public relations highlights how far Detroit still has to go, and fails to mask the desperate need for, well, bankruptcy. And while cheerleaders for a largely-imagined Detroit renaissance hold on to that feeling, time marches remorselessly on.

The unifying theme of Detroit’s campaign for hearts and minds: a throwback to the good old days. Back when city boys were the plucky, working class heart of the nation. “Detroit: not a town of quitters,” is how the Freep‘s Sarah A Webster frames the argument, Webster posits that a car wash billboard on Woodward Ave– which reads “never give up”– exemplifies this civic pride. “For all I know,” writes Webster, “it’s been up there for years.” Which is a major part of the problem. Detroit’s automakers have been in savage decline for so long that most Americans don’t even know what they would come back to become.

Webster notes that she “quite ironically” first noticed the sign’s long-running message of not quitting “on Dec. 12, the morning after the U.S. Senate voted against lending Detroit’s automakers the $14 billion they sought to survive the global economic downturn.” At that dark hour, the sign on Woodward shone like a beacon of hope to Webster after “Congress had just voted to turn the lights out on the Motor City.” As a “darkest moment before sunrise” though, this hardly inspires the kind of faith and sympathy that Detroit is clearly looking for. It simply highlights the new reality of Detroit as an oversized, reality-ignoring, bailout-begging hype machine.

Motown’s plucky, blue-collar image overhaul depends on prodding Americans to reach back to a decades-old model of a successful, competitive Detroit. To pull off its Lazarus risen act, Detroit must also hide the fact that the road to redemption doesn’t lead through River Rouge or Hamtramack. It comes in the form of government checks. And this causes internal discord, cognitive dissonance and a renewed emphasis on style over substance.

Should Chrysler not be “stung” by GMAC’s extra $6b worth of TARP loving? After all, if one American automaker can have its self-destructive incentive binges underwritten by the government, shouldn’t they all? Besides, if Chrysler can convince no less than the LA Times‘ Dan Neil that its 200C concept is a “real-world car” and that it “will be available in two years” (actual car courtesy of Nissan), isn’t that good enough for some know-nothing congressmen?

With Obama’s vast stimulus under debate in the new congress, the Detroit Auto Show was not a showcase of the consumer-driven products that the once-big three can put on the showroom floor. It was a message to lawmakers that Detroit could fulfill their politically-driven goals as long as the checks keep coming. And the transition from a consumer-driven culture in Detroit (if such a thing ever existed) to a politically-driven one shouldn’t be difficult.

GM, Chrysler and Ford executives are forever bemoaning the American consumer’s ignorance of their product’s self-evident desirability. And the oft-touted “perception gap” is much easier to tackle among easily-influenced subsidy check signers in DC than it is among financially struggling Americans.

AdAge reports that a $50m effort to revamp the image of American automakers in the minds of consumers is failing to gain traction, despite David E. Davis’ midwifery and the blessing of Lee Iaccoca. Ford is especially trying to distance itself from these efforts, rightly believing that associating itself with the PR efforts of tax money-guzzlers is counterproductive, at least in terms of consumer opinion.

Now that GM and Chrysler are on the dole, they can not deny that they have lost their way. As TTAC’s Ken Elias wrote this morning, decades of denial can only be swept away with a quick admission of guilt and a plausible vision of a brilliant future. But Detroit chases feelings of nostalgia and futurism while remaining stuck in a dismal and seemingly eternal present.

Detroit has singularly failed to understand that the classic American narratives of rebirth and redemption begins with a dark night of the soul– not a trip to DC to ask Santa for a multi-billion dollar bailout. A bankruptcy reorganization would not only have given GM and Chrysler the tools to transform themselves, it would have given Americans a reason to cheer for new underdog brands, freed from their toxic legacies.

Instead, Detroit is trying to conjure up sympathy by ignoring the rules, begging for money and selling a future they know is out of reach without more handouts. And even, one must now conclude, with them.

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  • on Jan 23, 2009

    Whats going to back lash is the AMERICAN people now that they have woke up to the fact that foreign businesses only take jobs away from America. Now that they are realizing the impact foreign Automakers and foreign companies will fall. These foreign businesses have punished Americans for far to long with their poisoned goods and tainted sub par products. President Obama knows whats been going on in this country and transparency will end the Foreign payoffs, and with new rules and regulations and with universal fair trade practices and the reduction in sales in this country will bankrupt these foreign businesses as they are trying to do to American businesses. What comes around goes around

  • on Jan 23, 2009

    In my opinion the only people that buy foreign products have serious disorders. For one they are ignorant to the fact that by buying foreign products they send their monies out of the country thereby eliminating jobs in the USA. They also dont realize or dont care that they are subsidizing child labor and unregulated pollution that is generated in these countries. They also dont realize or dont care that the food product they purchase from these countries go virtually unchecked and what the label says is not what they get. From lead tainted toys to poisoned pet foods to unregulted fishing of all species,fish,whales,lobsters,shrimp. They deplete the oceans with no regard to anyone or anything except the dollar. Here in the USA we have laws and our businesses adhere to those laws in order to keep our people healthy and we have laws so we dont overfish the oceans and we have laws to keep people from exploiting child labor and we have laws governing pollution from leaving our factories and these cost our companies money and therby increasing the costs of AMERICAN products. This is why we had TARIFFS and these reasons are why we used to sanction governments that agreed with these policies. We need true leadership in our Government again and we need to sweep the flor clean of corrupt politicians and WE as AMERICANS need to buy AMERICAN MADE PRODUCTS.

  • Teddyc73 A resounding NO. This has "Democrat" "Socialism" "liberalism" "Progressivism" and "Communism" written all over it.
  • Jeffrey An all electric entry level vehicle is needed and as a second car I'm interested. Though I will wait for it to be manufactured in the states with US components eligible for the EV credit.
  • Bob65688581 Small by American standards, this car is just right for Europe, and probably China, although I don't really know, there. Upscale small cars don't exist in the US because Americans associate size and luxury, so it will have a tough time in the States... but again Europe is used to such cars. Audi has been making "small, upscale" since forever. As usual, Americans will miss an opportunity. I'll buy one, though!Contrary to your text, the EX30 has nothing whatsoever to do with the XC40 or C40, being built on a dedicated chassis.
  • Tassos Chinese owned Vollvo-Geely must have the best PR department of all automakers. A TINY maker with only 0.5-0.8% market share in the US, it is in the news every day.I have lost count how many different models Volvo has, and it is shocking how FEW of each miserable one it sells in the US market.Approximately, it sells as many units (TOTAL) as is the total number of loser models it offers.
  • ToolGuy Seems pretty reasonable to me. (Sorry)