This was a really great response to my admittedly feisty piece.
Over at Mother Jones, Adam Weinstein makes plain that he did not like the Chrysler commercial that I gushed about last night. He argues that
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.
And, truth be told, I think he’s got a whole lot of good points. Indeed, I recommend his anti-Chrysler post to you and encourage you to consider the list of Detroit-area plant and complex closings that he sets against the message that Chrysler broadcast to America last night.
And yet I’m going to stick to my main point about the commercial, namely that — whatever else you might say it is — more poverty porn about Detroit it ain’t. On that, as I told Weinstein on Twitter (where we had quite a good conversation; you might consider following him for the witicisms alone), I think he’s mistaken.
In particular, it seems to me that more poverty porn about Detroit wouldn’t include the historic Fox Theatre or the various scenes shot around Hart Plaza; if Chrysler just wanted to show their gritty side, they’d do better with abandoned warehouses and burned-out houses … the sort of thing that Eminem’s 8 Mile gave us in spades. Maybe they’d feature some of the urban gardens that the New York Times loves to tell us are being planted in abandoned lots all over the city.
The thing I like so well about the Chrysler ad is the way it highlights the beautiful parts of Detroit that are simply beautiful, not beautiful in their dilapidation or destruction. What’s more, I want to suggest — by way of response to Weinstein — that Detroit’s grittiness and toughness (which Chrysler wants to highlight here to sell some cars) were hallmarks of the city well before the economic collapse of the past decade.
As is my wont, I’m going to turn to sports to make my point because — growing up around Michigan — it’s always been my framing mechanism. I could point to the reputation of the Bad Boy Pistons in the mid- to late-1980s but that’s almost certainly not going far back enough … and, of course, those Pistons played in Pontiac and then Auburn Hills, not Detroit.
So how about Detroit before the suburban explosion?
How about the Red Wings teams of the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s? Who better encapsulates what it means to be a Detroiter than Gordie Howe, after all, and who is a more recognizable Detroit sports figure? And who’s tougher?
“Dad’s mind-set on the ice was different than most anybody else I’ve ever met. He can be cruel. I’ve seen him be vicious. I’ve seen him hurt people and I used to think, ‘Wow, it’s like he meant to do it,’” says Mark Howe about Gordie on ESPN Classic’s SportsCentury series.
Or go further back still, to Ty Cobb, whose tough and gritty attitude is as much a legend as his batting average with the Tigers. For an impressive (and abbreviated) list of his nastiness, see here. Or, for a far more heroic toughness, one needn’t look much further than Joe Louis (whose monument was featured in the Chrysler ad).
Just a couple of examples from the sporting world. We could also look at the music industry or the auto industry itself for great examples of the tough, rough-and-ready attitude that has long characterized Detroit. I want to suggest that it’s this vision of the city that Chrysler wanted to highlight (for their own ends, of course) and, importantly, it’s this vision of the city to which so many Detroiters — myself very much included — responded when they saw the commercial last night.