Peter York On Ads: Fairies and monsters on the streets

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The Independent Online

The US car industry is in a bad way. It's constantly being reorganised, but the various fixes don't seem to have worked. GM, once the world's largest company, is a long way down the list, number 520 in Forbes magazine as measured by market cap. Ford makes losses and Chrysler, amazingly, is Daimler-Chrysler - i.e. German-American.

At one point, Americans saw their future as global car brand-owners, rather like Bernard Arnault of LVMH, the great French luxury goods combine. They bought up lots of European premium and luxury brands and ended up owning a lot of the key Euro-marques.

Take Sweden: GM owns Saab and Ford has Volvo. Those green, good-for-you, Guardian-reading brands are controlled from Detroit. Ford owns Jaguar and Aston Martin here, but it's been talking of selling AM because it's strapped for cash.

But time was, the American car industry seemed set to run the world. Domestically, the industry made fascinating, freakish monster-cars, while internationally it was organised to provide world cars and Euro-cars from a clever matrix of local brands and factories. Ford of Dagenham assembled compelling demotic cars from bits made all over the place and made the old British Leyland - later Rover Group - business look distinctly creaky and under-invested. And Vauxhall dominated Luton.

Now these operators are competing with the world and his wife - with more productive Japanese carmakers who set up in Britain 20 years ago, and with every brand and sub-brand from everywhere - such as Korea and the Czech Republic. There's probably even a market for those comedy cars from India.

But until well into the Seventies, Europeans were riveted by American cars. They were the symbol of "The American Century" - massive, exuberant, extravagant, with a completely different aesthetic. Conventional European intellectuals usually hated them, thinking them vulgar and wasteful. Design people thought they were silly, gauche and technically old-fashioned under their seasonally updated styling. But a gallant band of art-school ironists adored them for that freakishness. And the young film-going British public usually loved them, full stop.

But when did you last notice American cars in films, or on American roads? The cars aren't the stars any more and the reality of American roads is that they're full of everything from everywhere. Smart "Big City" Americans drive silver German jobs, just like here. But that's just the sedans. America is full of oversized SUVs from all over, and they gave us the Humvee, which looks as if it should have a gun turret - the perfect provocation for the Third World War.

America never exported much Detroit product to Europe. It didn't fit our little streets and garages and it used too much petrol. But now there's the Dodge Caliber, a sort of Humvee Lite from GM. The commercial is seriously odd. It's shot in America, in what looks like New York, but it's difficult to imagine this running on American TV either. It stars a sort of fairy creature who flies around the skyscraper tops changing things in a whimsical way with her sparkly little wand. The SFX techniques look pre-Mary Poppins. She takes a skyscraper and reworks its top as a Disney house. She turns a commuter train into a toy steam engine. Then she has a go at a black Dodge Caliber - shot to look X-rated aggressive - emerging from a tunnel.

But the armour-plated lump's completely resistant. She flies around in an angry shower of sparks as it careers ahead and a gravy-dark American voice tells us it's got air-con, leather upholstery and automatic transmission as standard. She ends up splattered against a Rotten Gotham wall where a skinhead with a pit bull - I mention this as it's such a British archetype - mocks her and she magics him into an Upper East Side Gaylord with white shorts, a yellow sweater and four pugs. It's the key to the whole thing. "New Dodge Caliber - it's anything but cute!" they say with a blast of Seventies guitar chords and a bull logo. As any Brit kid will tell you, that's the sign it's seriously gay.