This week, struggling automakers learned they won't be getting a piece of the bailout for now. The auto industry and financial experts are debating the economic effects of a possible bankruptcy in this cornerstone of American manufacturing. But what about the effect on our collective psyche? USA Today's Sharon Carty discusses how the American car resonates in American culture.
BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media, I'm Bob Garfield. With sales at a standstill, their stock prices plummeting and their cash reserves dwindling, the big three auto companies didn't much like the news they got Thursday. According to the Democratic leadership in the Senate, votes for a federal bailout are just not there.
The automakers say the ripple effect of bankruptcies would devastate every level of the economy, but others argue that bankruptcy could force them to regroup and reemerge as leaner and more competitive.
But never mind economic catastrophe. What about our feelings? GM, Ford and Chrysler and the cars they build are so iconic, so much a part of the American culture, so much a part of the American psyche, wouldn't their collapse bury a portion of our very souls?
Sharon Carty covers the auto industry for USA Today. She recalls interviewing a man a few years back who said he drove only American cars. Then she asked him what that means. SHARON CARTY: And he said that it had to be built in America by an American company by American workers. And so, I asked him what car he drove, and he said he drove a Buick Century. And the look on his face when I told him [LAUGHS] it was built in Canada [BOB LAUGHS] – he just was devastated. And he said, well, you know, it doesn't matter. They're American cars. BOB GARFIELD: Whereas, his Toyota Camry could have been built in Tennessee or something.
SHARON CARTY: Exactly. We're building cars in Mexico, we're building cars in Canada and we're calling them American, and meanwhile these Japanese companies are coming here and they're building cars here. So [LAUGHS], you know, what does it mean to be an American car? I'm not quite sure. BOB GARFIELD: Now, there was a time when American cars were so much a part of our culture and our lives that they kind of emerged organically in popular culture, like the Mustang that Steve McQueen drove in Bullitt, like the cars in American Graffiti, the Camaro that the A-Team drove. [LAUGHS] But now the domestic manufacturers have been reduced to trying to force their products into the popular culture. Can you tell me how they're doing that? SHARON CARTY: Ford has an office out in Hollywood where they spend a lot of time getting their cars into movies. And they recently won the 2008 Brand Cameo Award for Overall Product Placement. They had cars in 30 of the 52 number-one movies in 2007.
So this is a big effort of theirs, to make sure that they've got cars in those race scenes that you see. They particularly like to have cars in spy movies or cop movies or CSI. A most recent example is the Bond movie, the Quantum Solace that came out this week, where Ford has the European car, the Ford Ka, in there.
Saturn has an agreement with Project Runway, so all of the Project Runway contestants win a Saturn and you always see them driving around in Saturns and talking about their Saturn. Top Chef is sponsored by Toyota, so whenever they go anywhere they're all in Toyotas.
So it’s something that the automakers really spend a lot of time and effort on, ‘cause they just [LAUGHS] want their cars to be associated with what’s hip and what’s cool. BOB GARFIELD: Does all that product placement actually work? Do people have the same visceral reaction to a clearly product-placed Ford, say, in 24 or in a Batman movie that they would have to seeing the Mustang that was so much a central part of Bullitt? SHARON CARTY: I'm not sure that the product placement really works in that way, that people sort of get viscerally attached to it. It keeps the cars in people’s consciousness, so they're – they’re thinking about it.
I think what’s more natural and organic is when people start picking up the names of cars and sticking them into songs. When Cadillac started first hitting its revival at the end of the '90s and the early 2000s, I think Cadillac was kind of taken by surprise that all of these hip-hop artists started talking about riding in their [LAUGHS] Caddies. And that is more natural. That’s happening because people are interested in it and it’s resonating with them, and then you see it sort of bubble up through songs.
I don't think you can product-place into songs as much as you can into movies, and so when you see it happening in music, it seems like it’s actually reflecting some level of a success, rather than some successful use of your checkbook to get your car in a movie. BOB GARFIELD: You know, cars ultimately are a consumer product, but they're so much more than that. Our relationship with our cars so far is a lot more intimate than the one with our microwave ovens, for example. Can you discuss why that is? SHARON CARTY: People see you driving around in your car, just like they see you wearing your clothes, and what they choose to drive tends to reflect a little bit about what they value. So you could say that maybe folks who drive maybe more of an econo-box are saying to the world that they're sort of counterculture because they're just driving something that’s cheap and affordable, just like you would just sort of wear jeans and a t-shirt and say that you don't really care about what everybody else cares about.
And if you’re driving a Hummer you’re probably telling people that you've got more money than God and you can just light it on fire in the evening, if you want. BOB GARFIELD: Okay, so what happens if these brands fail? What does that do to the collective consciousness, to our national psyche? Will we still be singing about a brand in bankruptcy? SHARON CARTY: I'm not sure about that. What a lot of people sort of underestimate, the impact that the ability to make things has on people. Back in World War II, a lot of the car plants around here stopped making cars and started making bombers just to help out the war effort. We're Americans. We can do things. We can make things.
So I'm not sure if we have an industry that’s failed and in bankruptcy if it’s going to really hurt the way we think about ourselves and think about our country. If we're a country based on retail and banking and services, do they still feel that same level of pride that you did back in World War II, saying that we could do this, we can pull it together? Or is our only self-identity right now that like we can shop through this? [MUSIC UP AND UNDER] BOB GARFIELD: Sharon, thank you very, very much. SHARON CARTY: Thank you, Bob. BOB GARFIELD: Sharon Carty covers the automotive industry for USA Today. WOODIE GUTHRIE SINGING: Take me riding in the car, car, take me riding in the car, car. Take you riding in the car car, I’ll take you riding in the car.