The classic American auto commercial goes back more than fifty years. "See the U.S.A. in your Chevrolet," sang Dinah Shore. Driving a great car was an expression of living in a great country. And General Motors' implicit promise was that everyone in a great country could have a great car, starting with that Chevy and aspiring upward to a Cadillac.
Sunday morning, while watching Fareed Zakaria on CNN, I was shocked to see an auto ad aimed at convincing Americans of something very different: That this is no longer a great country -- but buying a particular car can protect you from the decay.
The Audi A-6, ostensibly, is an intelligent car. But America's roads, we're told, are not:
The road is not exactly a place of intelligence. You read about it. You hear about it in the news. You witness it every day on your commute. Which is exactly why Audi engineered the highly intelligent new Audi A6 -- built to combat whatever "genius-ness" the road throws its way.
But intelligence is not really the theme of this commercial; it's decay and decline. The opening shot shows an A6 gunning down a freeway filled with cracks and potholes. Tires are knocked off a truck after it hits some bad pavement and then come careening toward the A6. The narrator mentions that underfunded highway maintenance costs drivers $67 billion a year. The visuals show broken guardrails, a bridge on the verge of collapse.
The solution? Pass an ambitious program to invest in restoring America's roads? No way. Instead, the ad delivers a new message: If you are fortunate enough to be able to afford an Audi A6 (lowest listed price: $41,700), you'll be able to weave your way more safely through the obstacle course created by America's decline and fall.
Gated communities, of course, and private schools, have long discreetly marketed themselves as refuges from communities that haven't invested adequately in community safety and public education. But they typically talk about their own fantastic virtues, rather than denigrating the broader community. Never have I seen an ad that so blatantly proclaims to America's elite: The country you are leading is going down the tubes, but instead of fixing it, you ought to protect yourself with your own personal security system -- in this case an Audi A6."
Audi reinforces this message on its website, where you can find out just how awful the roads in your community are (just in case you aren't already sufficiently frustrated to go test drive a new Audi). And it has suggestions for how to improve the situation. You can, of course, buy an Audi A6. Or you can report new potholes as you encounter them and log on to learn about traffic hazards. But the notion that we might actually improve the roads is utterly absent. (During the 20th century, the auto industry was a major advocate for better roads, but Audi is now basically saying that, in the 21st century, bad American roads are a given.)
The fact that this ad ran on Zakaria's program, a haven for the politically intrigued and engaged, is also telling. Either Audi made a mistake or their market research indicates that even the most civic-minded Americans are ready to give up on this country and bail out themselves and their families -- like leaders of a third-world country afflicted with drug wars or tribal conflict.
Bumpy or not, is that really the road we want to go down?