Sunday Story: Cheap Shot
After getting lost in the maze of hallways numerous times, I finally found the door I was looking for. I knocked and it swung open sharply. Larry stood there with a devilish grin on his face, the kind he got when he was really proud of something. I could see a still from his work on the enormous screen behind him. A famous actor stood next to a luxury sedan, pointing at it with a smirk. Before I could say anything, Larry grabbed me by my collar and pulled me into his lair.
We sat down amongst the plethora of expensive video editing equipment in the small, dark room. He grabbed the burrito out of my hand and tore into it with ravenous force.
“So what did you bring me here to see? I know it’s gotta be something special. You usually don’t care about commercials.” He gulped down his mouthful of food, then began to explain.
“It’s brilliant. This is, like, the nuclear option of car ads. You know that a lot of luxury cars aren’t made in developed countries anymore?”
“You do, but not many others. Nobody actually pays attention anymore. The people that buy them just assume they’re being put together by diligent men in white lab coats. Or skilled craftsmen with files and gauges. They don’t even read the window sticker.”
“So what? Do people actually care? Should they?” That smile crept back on his face again.
“Advertising is just telling people what they should and shouldn’t care about. It’s about inventing needs. It’s about making people anxious over stuff they never even thought about.”
“That’s nice. Why don’t you go write for Mother Jones?”
“Hey, screw you. I’m no hippie. I don’t even recycle.” He wiped his mouth on his sleeve, and then reeled back around to his custom keyboard.
“Watch and learn something. This is going to be historic.” As I looked up at the screen, he hit play. The famous actor flashed his brilliant white teeth as he began to speak.
“There are a lot of ‘luxury’ cars on the market today,” he crooned, making smug little quotation marks with his hands as he said the magic l-word. “But where does ‘luxury’ really come from?” He walked past the sedan, towards a door on a blank white wall. He flashed another smirk at the camera as he twisted the knob and strode through the doorway.
Now the actor was standing outside a dingy factory. Sullen men in dirty uniforms were filing out. They were getting on bicycles or waiting trains to go home- not cars. Dogs barked in the potholed street, and graffiti covered the mostly abandoned buildings. There was another luxury sedan parked on the curb. The swoop of the camera got the badge in full relief- a famous luxury maker.
“Can a ‘luxury’ car come from Romania? After all, that’s where this one is made.” He gave the fender a little rap with his hand. Still smiling, he shook his head slightly. He grabbed another door, this time on a graffiti-tagged wall. He opened it, and strode into the next scene.
“How about Mexico? That’s where this maker builds its most popular luxury sedan.” Another sedan, another popular luxury marque. This time, they were in a dusty shipping yard. Supervisors were yelling at stooped workers, as they struggled to push newly completed cars into battered shipping containers. The fell into their slots with a great clanging and banging of metal. The actor had a look on his face that was something of a cross between bemusement and vague horror. He found his next door rather quickly. There was a shift in the music that indicated an incipient emotional high point. The door opened again.
This time, the camera revealed a Dickensian industrial nightmare. Swarms of incredibly dirty workers mobbed around an open-cast steel furnace. A giant bucket plunged into the liquid metal, strings of it flying off in great ghostly globs. The workers struggled to move a giant, soot-encrusted mold into position. The bucket hovered over the mold for a moment, and then poured its contents out haphazardly. Workers jumped and dodged to avoid the white-hot metal spilling onto the floor. Throughout this procedure, filmed in agonizingly high definition, the actor stood silently. Then, turning to the camera, he spoke.
“Can ‘luxury’ come from China? That’s where one major brand casts most of its engines and steel parts.” The workers were swarming back around the mold. They began to hit at it with sledgehammers and pickaxes. Suddenly, it cracked and violently split open. Standing there, still red-hot, was a cast sculpture of yet another luxury maker’s logo. The camera flipped back to the actor. His face had that same look of mild terror and bemusement that he regarded the Mexican street with. He walked back out the door.
Now he was standing in a well-lit, clean factory. A shiny new luxury car rolled off the end of a line, its horn giving a crisp honk. The actor smiled, this time with genuine appreciation. An in-car shot showed two men carefully inspecting the interior trim. One was an Asian man with a pocket flashlight and a studious expression. The other was an American with a clipboard and pen. As the car rolled to a stop, they got out in sync. The two men looked across the top of the car at each other, and nodded in mutual acknowledgment of a job well done. The camera refocused on the famous actor.
“All of Brand X’s cars and engines are made in Japan and the United States. After all, shouldn’t luxury cars be made by people that can appreciate them?” The scene cut away to Brand X’s logo and a slogan- “Made by the Luxury Professionals.” Larry was beaming.
“So what do you think?”
“Inane, possibly xenophobic, and full of misdirection. Nice job on the lighting effects, though.”
“This is big. This is going to shake up the whole paradigm.”
“I just don’t see the point, personally. I don’t think anyone really cares about where their cars are built anymore, Larry. Even luxury cars. Everybody buys stuff from the Third World.”
“You’re missing the point. Just because something is expensive doesn’t mean it can’t be a value. Origin is a big part of that. Think about the burrito that I just wolfed down. A big part of Chipotle’s marketing spiel is that you know exactly what you’re getting. The meat isn’t raised in factory farms. The vegetables are locally grown. This is stuff that people are willing to pay for.”
“There are a lot of luxury goods made with cheap labor. People still buy Iphones made in China.”
“And people are still dumb enough to believe that ‘exclusivity’ is what sells Iphones, not the fact that Droids are buggy garbage. A phone isn’t exactly a high-stakes investment. If it breaks, it’s not the end of the world. I’m not opposed to people outsourcing their cheap, low-stakes stuff. That’s how industrial economies get their start. There are some things that shouldn’t be gambled with, though. When people’s dogs are dying because their biscuits are laced with melamine, they start to pay attention. It’s not unreasonable to want to know where your important stuff is coming from, because there’s all kinds of ways to cut corners that aren’t obvious to the end consumer.”
“A car doesn’t have to be made in a specific place to be reliable. There have been plenty of German, American, and Japanese cars that weren’t exactly high quality.”
“True enough. But who wants to fork over $50,000 for a car that was made by guys earning $4.00 an hour? Where’s the added value for you, the consumer? They aren’t making it any more amazing because they scrimped on the labor. That’s just the company soaking you, man. When they build the same car in two places, one with decent labor standards and the other without, they aren’t cutting you a check for the difference. That money is just going right in the safe. Same thing with all these ‘luxury’ companies who are just selling their logo. They’re playing the global trade game, and you should too.”
“I guess I see your point.” Larry nodded.
“It’s a start.”
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