Tuesday, February 15th, 2011

Hoping Detroit Fails by Jim Russell

The backlash has begun. SmartPlanet links to a Mother Jones piece that rips the Chrysler ad I discussed yesterday. The critique has become, in my view, a vacuous cliché:

But there’s a lot to dislike here: the fact that a major bailout recipient is dishing beaucoup bucks for a one-off ad to boost its image; the cynical racism (or at least colonialism) of positioning Chrysler as a tough, gritty, 8 Mile-style brand that’s perfect for what marketers call the “urban core” demographic; and using Detroit poverty porn to hawk your product while simultaneously trying to deride the media’s recent Detroit poverty porn.

The charge of exploiting “poverty porn” is reminiscent of the scathing rebuke of the Levi’s campaign that sells jeans using Braddock’s ruin porn. That’s an important connection to make. The Associated Press offers a watered-down version of the concern:

“Detroit’s ascendancy mirrors Eminem’s own struggles and accomplishments,” Chrysler brand CEO and President Olivier Francois said in an e-mail to the AP. “This is not simply yet another celebrity in a TV spot. It has meaning. Like his music and story, the new Chrysler is ‘Imported from Detroit’ with pride.”

Of course, the tagline is not without some irony: Italian automaker Fiat Group SpA now owns 25 percent of Chrysler, and the ad was produced by Wieden + Kennedy, a Portland, Ore.-based agency known for its work with Nike. Chrysler switched after its previous advertising agency, a famous firm called BBDO, closed its Detroit office.

Does Wieden + Kennedy ring a bell? Mother Jones went after the Nike connection. I immediately thought of the “Ready to Work” campaign that featured Braddock. In fact, the Chrysler ad seems similar in its use of Rust Belt Chic. The agency is located in Portland, OR and has its finger on the pulse of the urban frontier. The swipe at the emerald cities in the definition of Detroit cool is ironic.

The other thread running through the negative reaction to the Chrysler ad is Fiat’s ownership stake and the US government bailout of the American auto company. Why are taxpayers propping up a foreign company?

The [Nike] shoe waiting to drop is Chrysler abandoning Detroit for Turin, Italy. We bail you out and then you spit in our face, raking in corporate profits. Detroit is left with only a sleek ad, 15-minutes of fame.

But hold on a second:

Sergio Marchionne, chief executive of Fiat and Chrysler, has been forced on the defensive after causing a political firestorm in Italy by suggesting he could move the Italian company’s headquarters from Turin to the US and saying Chrysler’s bail-out loans from the US government carried “shyster rates”.

His comments come just a month after he won tough labour concessions at Fiat’s flagship Turin plant on a pledge that he would not move production to cheaper sites in North America or eastern Europe.

Fiat is a symbol of Italy’s industrial might, and business leaders say any decision by Mr Marchionne to reduce its presence there would have a disastrous effect on the country’s already weak image as a place for foreign investment. Pierluigi Bersani, leader of the opposition Democratic party, demanding an explanation from Mr Marchionne said it was unacceptable for “Turin and the country to become a suburb of Detroit”.

The above is from yesterday’s news cycle. After all is said and done, Turin might be the city left high-and-dry. Detroit will be the one stealing jobs from abroad. Of all the pontificating (good and bad) about the Super Bowl spot, not a single blog post or article mentions the shitstorm rising from Marchionne’s comments. There is no consideration of the bigger picture.

Which brings me back to Detroit and the huge task that city faces to revitalize:

“When I was elected, I thought I knew what was going on, but I got here and found out [that] in the short term, things were way worse than I ever imagined,” Bing said. “Financially. Ethically. From a policy standpoint. We were on the brink of a financial calamity.”

Twenty-one months into the job, that’s where the city remains. With no salvation in sight, Bing, 67, has embarked on a mission few in his position have ever had to take on: dramatically shrinking a major American metropolis. To do so, Bing has issued an open invitation: anyone with a proposal, plan, theory – a notion, even – is welcome to try to save his crumbling city.

The people trying to save the city tended to respond positively to the Chrysler ad. Maybe poverty porn sells a few cars. But it can also rally many to the cause. The Mother Jones invective is what is postcolonial, exploitative. I’m from the Rust Belt. Don’t tell me what the score is. I’m not being seduced by ruin porn and I’m not buying your lefty propaganda.

A crumbling Detroit is supposed to teach us how capitalism is evil. Those wielding Marxist theory want Detroit to fail. It is supposed to fail. The idea that nothing good can come from the promotion of consumerism is oppressive ideological thinking. I’m not interested in Mother Jones telling me what the ad means. I can decide for myself. I can be inspired and still point a damning finger at Chrysler. Doing so doesn’t make me a hypocrite. It means I’m an active consumer of media. That cuts both ways as far as Mother Jones is concerned.

This post originally appeared in Burgh Diaspora.

Topics: Civic Branding, Economic Development, Urban Culture
Cities: Detroit

19 Responses to “Hoping Detroit Fails by Jim Russell”

  1. I should point out that Mother Jones is not alone. Subsequent to Jim originally writing this, conservative pundit Mark Steyn devoted a six minute segment while guest hosting Rush Limbaugh to criticizing the ad.

  2. “Detroit”, it seems, is a metaphor for many different things which various people like to berate.

    It’s a metaphor the various US-based (including Chrysler, ignoring Fiat’s role for now) automaking concerns, and their allegedly crappy products and atrocious and predatory business practices.

    Else it’s a metaphor for the UAW, for Kwame Kilpatrick and goodness-knows any number of Detroit politicians past and present, and for trade-unionism and liberal politics in general. (And in some critiques from the right, it becomes a not-so-subtle racist metaphor).

    Both metaphors ignore the millions of people who live there, for have no desire or ability to “get out”. Or worse, these metaphors seek to punish the population of a city for embracing whichever system the speaker in question considers evil.

    The trouble with this, as Russell notes–Detroit is a city, not a metaphor. For many working to save, preserving the old institutions is not an end (though it may be a means).

    That said, after reading Russell’s blog a bit, it should be pointed out to him that the same is true for Portland. The whole “creative class” thing is no more than a decade old; my hometown has been around a LOT longer than that, and yet many national writers (including Russell) have this annoying habit of reducing Portland to a renaissance fair writ large.

    Rust-belters in many ways should view the Rose City (and the Beaver State) as a beacon of hope–Oregon had one of its dominant industry (timber) utterly demolished two-and-a-half decades ago, and has (somewhat) successfully reinvented itself.

  3. marko says:

    This is the most over-analyzed yet overtly simple disasters of economics to explained in our times. The UAW strangled the big three which in turn destroyed the city. Hell, I heard the city even has a robot head tax to replace the lost taxes on the workers. Detroit, Industrial Chicago, Gary, Youngstown, Cleveland, Erie, Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Scranton, and all the rest of the “Rust Belt” failed because they were in reality the “Labor Racket Belt”, and nothing short of making these right to work states will help them one bit. There is simply no greater economic multiplier than industrial production. It creates the white collar bankers, lawyers, advertisers, computer techs, logistics, chemistry, physics jobs that are the “new” economy.

  4. Wad says:

    Marko, you can sip on your union haterade, but if you think unions are what has sown the seeds of destruction of the industrial economy, then you’ll also have to explain why nonunion communities deindustrialized at the same time the mostly union Rust Belt did.

    Right to work has not help the older industrial metropoles of Birmingham, Memphis, Little Rock or New Orleans. Also, in the rest of the South that has grown, is it because of right to work laws … or is it because the South was at least one stage of development behind the country? The Industrial Revolution crossed the Mason Dixon line 50 years ago … right in time for the industrialization of emerging economies. The Southern metros are competing for the same economic niche as the Third World, not the rest of the U.S.

    You also can’t have it both ways. Private union membership has been declining, and the gains in healthcare aren’t enough to reverse the decline.

  5. david vartanoff says:

    While I have no animus against Detroit as a city, I am furious that ANY money was wasted on propping up loser auto makers. They should have been liquidated with the Feds seizing the plants to remake them as solar and other green product factories. We not only don’t need more cars, we need to massively reduce internal combustion based travel. Much as I once owned a slant six Plymouth, those days are over and I would not want one again. As to the “unions ruined Detroit” canard, the most productive GM owned factory was NUMMI which was a UAW organised plant. Check out This American Life’s doc on the plant.

  6. marko says:

    Wad, the mid south has and continues to reap the demise of the unionized northern cities. The deep southern cities you cited, Birmingham and New Orleans, essentially predate the industrial revolution and are probably not good examples. Birmingham has more in common with obsolete New England mill towns of the proto industrial revolution than anything else and New Orleans still remains a part of the Gulf industry although Houston is king now and exploding in population. Nashville all the way to the Carolina coasts has become the new manufacturing belt. From Toyota to Mercedes to Nucor Steel its hard to ignore the new south. Look at a map of right to work vs non right work states and then look at a map of population growth from the last census and see if you dont at least draw a correlation. Then we can argue if it is direct or not.

  7. Birmingham is a mill town all right, just not the kind you are thinking of. You do know why it has that name, right?

  8. Ed Sanderson says:

    I seriously doubt that the UAW had much to do with decline of Detroit because for the last 30-40 years, the majority of their membership has been composed of white suburbanites.

  9. Wad says:

    Marko wrote:

    Wad, the mid south has and continues to reap the demise of the unionized northern cities.

    Two-word question: Then what?

    You could substitute Brazil, Ecuador, Colombia, Chile, China, the Philippines, and Indonesia in the same sentence.

    The Mid-South has tied its fortunes to transplanted factories. It has inherited closed-loop production systems, not getting the ability to learn import substitution, and forming the same dependent economies that had blindsided the Rust Belt.

    All the nations I mentioned above crave the very same economic functions as the South. China can out-South the South with workers at a third of the wage and three times the IQ. Plus, 3.5 billion people — half the world — can be hired for $2 a day.

    What comes after the factories are obsolete or a trade pact wipes out the right-to-work advantage?

  10. Sam says:

    I’m not crazy about the Chrysler bailout in the least, but the ad focuses on aspects of Detroit’s still-vibrant city life. It’s anything but poverty porn.

  11. DBR96A says:

    Once Chrysler gets back on its two feet, I hope they sue the shit out of Daimler to get back the $12B in cash reserves that Daimler effectively stole from them and wasted. Chrysler wouldn’t have needed a $9B “bailout” if they still had the $12B in cash that they earned themselves, and that they had specifically and explicitly saved for lean times. Or maybe the U.S. Government could sue Daimler? Regardless, Daimler owes somebody billions after the shit they pulled between 1998 and 2007.

  12. marko says:

    “What comes after the factories are obsolete or a trade pact wipes out the right-to-work advantage”

    Right to work’s advantages are not just in wages. It’s true advantage is in speed of inovation. Detroit’s big three simply could not innovate fast enough and satisfy their labor agreements. It really comes down to who’s factory is it? The workers or the owners’. If Im investing $1 billion to build a plant, Im not handing it over to the workers and politicians to tell me how to run it. We can still have clean air and labor laws to govern behavior without the unions. If I want to shut it down and retool it to better compete with a new Toyota model, I need that process to go smoothly, not take 10 years of legal battles with labor lawyers. This debate has been settled decades ago in the real world. Only in the realm of academia, labor organizations and certain sects within the Democratic Party is this even left to discussion. Capital that could move already has, and more capital is trying to figure out how to move.

  13. david vartanoff says:

    @Marko and all. The union bashing is at variance with the facts. The NUMMI plant with full UAW wages/benefits was the most efficient producer of GM cars in the US. It was management which couldn’t wake up. GM spent 5 years playing games w/right to work for min wage states before building the Saturn plant which then became a UAW plant anyway. FIVE YEARS of management dithering! How many cars could they have built/sold in a rehabbed plant in Detroit in a shuttered plant? Then every detail of Saturn design had to be blessed from Detroit. So, you had someone fly down to Nashville, rent a car and have a meeting. Another two person days wasted. The best, though, is the soundbite wherein a GM higher up assigned someone to “take pictures of the NUMMI plant” so they could make the others “look like it”. As if a little paint and decoration would change the culture!

  14. I do find it unsurprising, albeit unfortunate, that my point above was so swiftly demonstrated by the other commenters in this thread.

  15. marko says:

    Im sorry if you think the union bashing is somehow beating a dead horse, or played out. I speak from the point of view of person the construction and engineering business in Chicago who only has to look at our FORMER client list of factories we once relied on for stable work as they were in a constant state of retooling or reconfiguration. In every single case they moved south. In every single case it was labor strife, even if the union members didnt want to strike but had to in difference to a brother local striking, that was the final straw. So in addition to numerous now shuttered plants in Melrose Park, Schiller Park, Bensenville with hundreds of now unemployed former union members, countless metallurgists, accountants, bookeepers, truck drivers, construction workers and engineers are out of work too. So I will beat this dead horse because I only need my two eyes to see whats happening, not an NPR produced video.

  16. Wad says:

    Marko, we get it. Your two eyes can only see unions as a single-boogeyman ideology. You use unions as the funnel to figure out everything and contain it within a single scapegoat. Do you beat the dead horse because that’s all you can bring to the discussion?

    What about all of the nonunion industrial workers whose livelihoods were wiped out? The lack of a union wasn’t enough to preserve their jobs.

    The United States had a postwar industrial golden age in which a rising tide lifted both union and nonunion workers. This was from the mid-1940s to the mid-1960s.

    Deindustrialization began with a trickle, then a flood. No industry was spared. What happened in the 1960s?

    The United States was no longer protected by the post-World War II bubble. The U.S. was the only world power to emerge from the war with its industrial capacity intact. Allied nations, as well as the industrial Axis, had to spend a generation rebuilding from rubble.

    This effectively gave the U.S. a monopoly on world trade as well as finance. The post-World War II consensus among the winners and losers was to use mass industrialization as an alternative to warfare. Societies would be organized along economic, rather than militaristic, lines.

    In the mid-1960s, most European nations and Japan had their factories coming online. They were more modern, and this was the beginning of globalization. Remember, the U.S. and the industrial powers wanted workers, not warriors.

    The U.S. became an importer and financier to stabilize the war-ravaged societies. This had put the U.S. industries at a disadvantage, as they were hit from all sides with competition. The U.S. was hit with a one-two punch.

    Punch number two was Civil Rights. The laws gained by women, blacks and other minorities had the consequence of also inundating the work force with a far broader labor pool.

    You had more workers opting for dwindling jobs.

    Unions at their peak represented 35%-40% of the workforce. This left 60%-65% of the workforce unrepresented, and they bore the brunt of the post-’60s economic realignment as well.

  17. willfru says:

    “The other thread running through the negative reaction to the Chrysler ad is Fiat’s ownership stake and the US government bailout of the American auto company. Why are taxpayers propping up a foreign company?

    The [Nike] shoe waiting to drop is Chrysler abandoning Detroit for Turin, Italy. We bail you out and then you spit in our face, raking in corporate profits.”

    If I recall correctly, didn’t the administration push Chrysler into accepting the Fiat buyout as a condition of bailing out the firm?

  18. Wad says:

    The more likely scenario is Fiat leaving Italy and establishing a world headquarters in the U.S.

    Fiat, though, would have to get a larger stake of Chrysler.

  19. visualingual says:

    Just to focus on the commercial itself, I actually don’t really think it engaged in “ruin porn” — there are many specific spots in Detroit that I can think of, which are some of the most obvious ones, that could have been included in the footage but weren’t. I was impressed with the commercial as a commercial, larger issues aside. I put my own thoughts about it together here.

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