Tuesday, February 15, 2011

That Superbowl ad: Detroit image vs. reality

Posted By on Tue, Feb 15, 2011 at 2:41 PM

That Superbowl ad: Image vs. reality

I was going to let pass without mention all the positive attention being paid to that Chrysler Super Bowl ad featuring Eminem. But then I saw the commercial still being discussed Sunday on Detroit Public TV’s American Black Journal, and figured that I might as well join the crowd and kick in with a comment or two.

It is certainly easy to understand the need for a city that continually gets bashed by the national media to revel in some positive attention. But when that attention is based largely on fictions, how joyous should we all be? The biggest ruse of all, of course, is the much-ballyhooed “Imported from Detroit” tag line. The Chrysler 200 featured in the ad (produced by an Oregon agency) is assembled not in Detroit, but in Sterling Heights. The company itself is headquartered in Auburn Hills, and is owned in significant part by the Italian automaker Fiat.

So success of the Chrysler 200 will have zero direct effect on Detroit.

And then there’s the line about Detroit having been to “hell and back.” From my vantage point, I’d say we’re still waiting to see the return ticket.

As Mayor Dave Bing struggles to find a way to adjust to the devastating effects of population loss — and to this point can primarily boast of having an administration that, unlike his predecessor’s, isn’t a thoroughly corrupt criminal enterprise — the residents of the Motor City continue to face the reality of failing schools, widespread unemployment and poverty, illiteracy, and massively inadequate city services. All with more cuts in the offing.

By any measure of any significance, Detroit’s turnaround has yet to occur. In fact, given the extent of the financial problems being faced by the state and nation, it is difficult to imagine a scenario where the slide doesn’t continue. With the prospect of less aide from Washington, D.C., and reduced revenue sharing from Lansing, along with declining local property taxes — the full effect of which has yet to be felt — it is difficult to imagine anyone honestly justifying the notion that we’ve hit bottom and are beginning to rebound.

At this point, the best that can be said is that there are sincere attempts being made to stop the bleeding. Beyond that, though, is a message implicit in the commercial: that the city’s future remains linked to the internal combustion engine. That’s an idea so mid-20th century that it’s the exact opposite of visionary.

But, as former Metro Times staff writer and current Crain’s reporter Nancy Kaffer pointed out on the show hosted by the Freep’s Stephen Henderson, the commercial did succeed in conveying the reality that Detroit is “scrappy and tough and cool.” That’s absolutely true, and that is important. Detroit is undeniably scrappy and tough and cool. And maybe projecting that image of the city will help attract the attention of whatever it is they’re labeling this current generation of twentysomethings.

But if this city is ever going to be a place that truly reverses the overall pattern of out-migration and attracts families, and becomes a destination for a wide spectrum of people instead of just young, stalwart urban pioneers, then it is going to take more than an image makeover. The reality of this place has to change.

So, I’d say the allotted time for feeling good about a Super Bowl commercial is officially over.

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