Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Hog Heritage

A recent LA Times article by motorcyclist and journalist Susan Carpenter notes that Harley-Davidson’s sales are down due to high fuel costs, and that this poses something of a dilemma for a brand built on power, noise, and a robust disdain for such bourgeois concerns as fuel economy.

Carpenter quotes Harley’s CEO, James Ziemer, as saying that owning a Harley is “not about transportation, it’s about an experience.” The selling of experience is nothing new in the vehicle industry—in Auto Mania: Cars, Consumers, and the Environment (Yale University Press, 2007, p. 79), Tom McCarthy notes that when the U.S. car market began to reach the saturation point of an average of one car per family in the mid-1920s, manufacturers turned to creating new models and brands which could be linked to differing social statuses and aspirations and promoted through the growing advertising industry. But what happens to a gas-guzzling brand when more and more people are seeking the experience of actually saving on fuel?

Rather disingenuously, Harley seems to be trying to have it both ways. On the one hand, it is promoting its smaller models, like the Sportster and the Buell Blast. But as Carpenter points out, giving in too much to demands for efficiency threatens to erode the core brand itself. Harley’s solution to this dilemma seems to be a turn toward more forceful marketing of its own heritage.

Take, for example, the current lead ad spot on Harley-Davidson’s website, which has also been popping up recently on Facebook and elsewhere. It reads:

America, please don't buy a Harley because it gets 50 mpg. Mpg describes riding like biology describes sex. History has shaped this tank, not the whims of foreign oil. Let's ride to parties like rock stars. Let's fill the tank that gives back more than we put in. So screw it, let's ride.

The implication, of course, is, “Do buy a Harley, because it gets 50 miles per gallon—isn’t that great?” (It doesn’t seem so impressive to someone whose diesel Jetta gets at least that, but that’s another story.) But having made that point, the ad then shifts to plausible deniability: only a limp-wristed foreigner would actually care about fuel economy. That’s not the reason to buy a Harley. It’s a classic heritage move—inviting us to experience the past (in this case, the pre-oil-worries, pre-climate-change past) from the perspective of a more comfortable, more advanced, or more responsible present, without really having to resolve the tensions or contradictions between them.

All of which leads me to think that Harley’s heritage turn is in fact fostering a type of historical reenactment, in which riding a hog becomes a conscious way of connecting to a lost or vanishing past when Detroit was dominant and Americans didn’t have to worry about miles per gallon. It strikes me, in fact, that this may be an early sign of the coming of a post-petroleum age. Archaic forms of transportation, like other aspects of culture, have always been “heritagized” when they’ve been superceded—think horse-and-buggy, steam boats and trains, trolley, or, more recently, Detroit muscle cars. Given that the time lag between original experience and heritage experience seems to be shorter and shorter in our “experience economy,” the official turn to Hog Heritage may be one more canary in the mine as Americans start to realizing that our petroleum-based way of life is likely to cave in on us sooner rather than later.

Harley-Davidson’s recently-opened corporate museum in Milwaukee is clearly designed to support this heritage move. In a post entitled “Some of our Best Exhibits are in the Parking Lot,", museum blogger Bill Rodencal describes how the museum was created with only a glass wall between the exhibit floor and the parking area, so that museum-goers' own bikes could be incorporated visually into the Harley heritage on display.

The current advertising campaign seems to break the “fourth wall” in much the same way, making Harley ownership into a “place to play” (one commenter on the blog post wrote, “H-D did not so much build a museum…[as] build a new club house we can all call home!”) that is strikingly reminiscent of the use of historic sites by military reenactors playing out their own visions of the martial past. I know that muscle car clubs et al. have been doing this for many years – but what seems new is the corporate involvement in pushing this heritagizing process along. Is Harley creating an imagined/remembered/fantasy space for Americans who know they need to wean themselves from oil but can’t quite let go of their own image of the country or themselves as they do it? Maybe this is a first unconscious step toward turning the ritualized weekend Hog club ride into the kind of transportation heritage display that we usually associate with draft horse pulls and Mississippi steamboat rides. As with all heritage, the question is whether this helps to facilitate a needed change or just slathers a layer of nostalgia over the bigger questions that might prompted by all of this!

(And since I ended my last post by talking about vehicular sound, I feel like I should add this link to a site that describes how the signature Harley thunder sound is crafted. Aural heritage on the hoof!)

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