Why “Imported from Detroit”?

Author: Christopher Johnson | Filed under: Taglines

Chrysler’s Super Bowl ad featuring the tagline “Imported from Detroit” has generated excitement and controversy. I haven’t found much discussion of the verbally inventive tagline itself, though. It’s a pretty striking example of word choice and framing.

By framing, I mean using the background concepts and assumptions associated with a word to present an idea in a certain way. George Lakoff writes a lot about framing in political discourse. The interesting framing here comes, of course, from the word imported. Normally we use the word to describe something that comes from a foreign country. What are the implications of saying Chrysler’s cars are “imported” from Detroit, a city in the heartland of the U.S.?

The implication that makes the most immediate sense is that the cars are special and luxurious. Often we import what cannot be produced as well domestically. For years most of the top luxury cars in the U.S. have come from overseas: Germany (Audi, BMW, Mercedes-Benz), Japan (Acura, Lexus, Infiniti), Sweden (Saab, Volvo) and the UK (Jaguar). Chrysler might be trying to grab some of the glory associated with the phrase “luxury imports”.

But this tagline isn’t that simple. Detroit is a down-and-out city, and its auto industry has a longstanding image problem that got really bad a couple years ago when Chrysler and General Motors were bailed out by the federal TARP program. Consumers aren’t going to just start thinking that Chrysler cars are comparable to luxury imports.

So the tagline involves some dark irony, and is further complicated by the fact that Chrysler is partly owned by Italian carmaker Fiat, and that some of its cars and parts are made in Mexico and Canada.

The genius of the tagline (and the ad) is the way it casts Detroit as a foreign country. That makes its problems seem exotic instead of depressing. We Americans happily appreciate crumbling cities when they’re picturesque and in foreign locations. We feel embarrassed about urban decay in our own cities. This slogan says, “Look at Detroit with the same rapt attention you would pay to a travel destination. See what makes it special, and admire its scrappy resilience.”

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