Inverse Attention

Why do automakers doing the least interesting design talk about it the most?

I am all for celebrating emotional connections to cars. And there is something refreshing about not basing those connections entirely on power and speed. It may be a mark of sophistication that we are now able to put love and car together in a sentence that does not refer to a Porsche, or that we have become more aware about what even the most ordinary sedan looks like. Still, there is something a little disconcerting about the current wave of adoration of automobile design. It’s not just a matter of watching J Mays ascend into the realm of celebrities. The problem is the way car companies, having caught on to the fact that buyers are much more visually literate than they used to be—that they actually pay attention to design—have begun to see it as a marketing tool. We have always known that once marketing people get their hands on anything, it is a pretty fair conclusion that they will take charge of it, and whatever original ideas had once been there will be lost in a flood of hyperbolic, pretentious, and silly verbiage.

There is no better example of this than General Motors’ recent Buick advertising campaign built around the notion of Harley Earl, the celebrated designer who shaped GM’s flashiest cars of the 1950s. I say the notion of Harley Earl because he has been dead for 34 years and designed his last car for GM a decade before that. The ads don’t pretend Earl is still alive, but they do present him (in the form of actor John Diehl) as a cross between Humphrey Bogart and Cary Grant, who intones “I’ve come back to build you a great car.”

No less hokey is the print version. Headlined “The DaVinci of Detroit,” it features Diehl/Earl leaning with arms crossed against a yellow 1954 Buick. Keeping the alliteration going, the ad calls Earl “part Botticelli, part P. T. Barnum” and says he “created the tail fin, the concept car, the auto show, and the very idea that a car not only could be—but should be—a public declaration of personal style.”

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There are two ways to read this little escapade into history. The most benign interpretation is that loving 1957 Oldsmobiles is just another part of the revival of all things mid-century Modern. As when Mays and Freeman Thomas reinvented the Volkswagen Beetle, and Mays’s team at Ford later redid the classic Thunderbird, it is pleasing to see the field of automobile design, which has rarely admitted it had a past, be willing to look at history for inspiration.

But there’s more to the story than that. The other implication is more troubling: that the past is being used not so much an an inspiration but as a smoke screen, a cover for the fact that there is so little going on right now—at least at GM—in terms of truly innovative design. Show enough of the past and maybe people will believe that the dreary stuff you’re churning out now has the same DNA. That idea was used literally in a recent Cadillac commercial that shows the classics from the 1950s morphing into new ones.

Though the Earl ads are the most egregious, it isn’t only GM. Chrysler has tried very hard to sell design too. “Have you ever been in love?” a brochure with pictures of its upcoming Crossfire asks. (Mercedes-Benz also talks of love in some of its ads—there has to be something in that touchy-feelie Daimler Benz culture.) And just as GM seems to be marketing the idea of design in inverse proportion to its ability to create real design innovation, Chrysler’s biggest push to make design a selling point in its advertising has come quite recently, since the departure of Bob Lutz, the executive who did the most to elevate the design of the company’s products. (Lutz went to GM, but the impact of his presence has yet to be felt in the line.)

The car companies that possess real design leadership—Audi, for example—rarely make such extravagant and overbearing claims for it. Even Nissan, which has lately been bringing to market some of the freshest and most notable designs around, is not immune to what we might call the Rule of Inverse Attention. A few years ago it started the whole trend of marketing design by making its chief American designer, Jerry Hirshberg, a spokesman in its television commercials. (Unlike Earl, he is very much alive.) Then Nissan fell on hard times, Hirshberg didn’t get much into production, and he retired. Although the company’s recent revival has been based heavily on strong design, Nissan no longer feels the need to make a fetish of it. Instead the automaker has found it more beneficial not to market design as an idea but to devote its energies to actually producing it.

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