Monday, November 12, 2012

Sexy, Loud, and Fast (and other four-letter words)

How Mermaids (Don't) Sell Cars

America can take pride in having brought the world a number of great achievements --- jazz music, the Declaration of Independence, good coffee even at McDonald's, and, more than anything, muscle cars. The Camaro, the Mustang, the Charger: old versions or new, these are as much our legacy as landing on the moon or the whistle-inducing skirt of Marilyn Monroe.

Anybody remember the Pearl Jam song, "Wishlist"? Among other things ("I wish I was the souvenir you kept your house key on"), one of the lines goes, "I wish I was the full moon shining off a Camaro's hood." Ah yes, classic cars indeed. They are still around, of course, and out now in updated versions. (The new ones even have seat belts.) My wife's boss recently got a mailer for the new generations of cars like these, and the brochure combines sex appeal with poetry. One thing that this advertisement has learned is that the sexiest images may have no naked women (or men) in them at all. Less is more, in language and lingerie ads.

Chrysler wants to take ownership of its old Dodge Charger heritage. In this expensive, fold-out packet, each page has a sort of haiku-like text, one page visible at a time, and as you unfold a poster-sized ad, the next page of text opens up a new set of car photographs. Here's the first bit of poetic copy: "Sexy / Loud / Fast / And Other Four Letter Words." (We'll follow academic convention and use the slash mark to show line breaks.)

As with most good ads, this one can be read in a second or two, and the color red (speed, danger, red lips, fire trucks) combined with the technical, silvery grey (and details of pseudo-technical parts, like the lug nuts on the rim) create the impression that we're dealing with fine but complicated racing machinery. What do you get when you cross lipstick with a jet engine? Ads like these. Turn the page and here's the next hit of poetry.

To rely on the taxonomy of classical rhetoric, we can say that this text uses a trick called elision, which is to say, implied words we can skip over and yet still count as being grammatically present. The copy just says "Flat Out," but we understand there is a bit more text needed here, so the invisible, implied verb would be something like "run flat out" or "go flat out." We can skip over these words and just get the compression and energy implied by a tighter, more "driven" line. This is a brilliant choice and one I wish my own poetry students could learn. It's classic "less is more," and too it shows how a bit of colloquial English (flat out) can do wonderful things. In case it is hard to see on the screen, the text says, "Flat / Out / Until You / See God / Then Brake."

And note too here that as we move through the narrative (each page unfolding more cars than the spread before), the cropped perspective implies glimpses: glimpses of cars that are perhaps going past too swiftly to be seen all at once, but glimpses too because of the voyeurism of the perspective. We are spying on the cars almost, watching them through a keyhole. This is much sexier in practice than it might seem just in a verbal analysis, and sexier too than if we had the Laker Girls involved or some other cliche representation of overt sexual presence. The next page works just as well:

Not legible in this blog version may be the punch line: "Cops / Will / Stop / You. / Just To Ask About Your Car." The four bold large-font words are each monosyllables and of course we have an internal rhyme with cop and stop. There is great power and directness here, as well as the implies bragging rights of having a car that everybody covets, even John Q. Law, whose own car, we assume, is pretty quick out the gate itself. When I took delivery of my current car, a limited edition "Baja" version 4 x 4 Tacoma, the sports graphics irritated me but added to the "young-guys" vibe the car puts out. I think the 20-something techs at Toyota who prepped it for delivery did indeed fancy it. (They might think they want it right up until the first time they had to pay $85 for a full tank of gas.) Here's my car the afternoon I took it home.

As with Chrysler's launch of the SRT brand (Street and Racing Team), I intuited that for a shot of my own car the black and chrome style and deep-tread tires would speak for themselves. The ad above continues to unfold with more text and images, concluding with "Blur / Life / And / Everything / Suddenly Becomes Clear." All of this reverses almost a century of car ads, when women were needed to demonstrate sexual potency and speed, not glimpses of fenders or blurred taillights. I first went to an auto show with my dad in 1968. The car model gals were something else back in those strange and troubled times, and I was delighted to find a book at the Peterson Automotive Museum that surveys exactly this. Here is the cover shot from Sirens of Chrome: The Enduring Allure of Auto Show Models by Margery Krevsky.

I suspect most of us find this funny, not sexy. And as the book reveals on page 150, changing from exploiting men to exploiting women doesn't work visually either.

I hope his car has one of those magnetic hide-a-key boxes under the back bumper, since apparently he doesn't have any pockets to keep his car keys in. I graduated high school in 1977 and this ad from that same year brings me more discomfort than nostalgia. The car is as ugly as the pants suits.

I suppose the implied story of the Pontiac shot is "girls night out"? They are not just there as eye candy but somehow are in the middle of an actual evening or event? Maybe they are an under-cover team of super heroines, Charlie's Slacks Angels.

If they are crime stoppers, here's an ad from 1967 that combines The Avengers, the Perils of Pauline, and Bonanza, all in one visual mess.

1967 was the model year the Camaro was released, and so from the same year as the rope and hat ad above comes this shot with these three very mod models. Shag-a-delic, baby.

The ads for sports cars often imply that if a man is driving a car like that, he has a pretty girl by his side (think of the role women play as passengers in American Graffiti). When I'm in L.A. and see ultra hot cars tooling around Sunset Blvd, often as not, the driver is alone. All of the supermodels are in the backs of town cars being driven to their next gig. They know that to drive in a convertible will mess up their hair, and they won't be able to hear what their agent is telling them as they talk on their iPhones. Besides, going fast is always more fun for the driver than the passenger.

To return to our initial 2012 ad, the one with the poetry captions and blurs and glimpses, the cars have converged on Mulholland Drive to make out, but apparently with each other, since again, no humans (naked or otherwise) have cluttered up the clean lines of these latest production models. (A Jeep has snuck in there too, one many SUVs marketed these days too prissy to cross a half-full gutter.)

The ad does work, of course. Zoom, zoom --- I very much want one --- or maybe that is my midlife crisis talking again, since before I settled on replacing my beater truck with a new truck, I did wander around glam car showrooms. I still eye the zoomier cars, when I see them in Malibu or passing me on the long uphill that is the 14 climbing out of Los Angeles. At least for me, something faster off the blocks and louder down the street will have to wait until the loan payments catch up with the stack of paper I signed.

Until then, though, I can always spend my afternoons with my nearly-as-good and very flame-painted substitute: my newest Hot Wheels car.

The Antelope Valley College blog is written by Charles Hood, Language Arts, who can be reached at These blogs do not represent the opinions of the District nor of the Board of Trustees, all of whom collectively scold Hood for the number of speeding tickets he manages to accrue even in a heavy 4 x 4 truck.

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