Peter York on Ads: The car of choice for robots and philosophers

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The Independent Online

I don't know why they bother making cars. There's still huge over-capacity in the industry, even though the whole idea's so tremendously over. National pride and strange subsidies to keep people employed all mean there's practically nowhere - Central Africa perhaps - where they're not at least assembling bits of cars. Do Laos and Cambodia have a car industry? Not yet, but they'll probably be doing sub-assemblies for the Koreans.

Most of Detroit makes losses. Ford is laying off and paying off its long-haul workers - that American blue-collar aristocracy. Detroit means a lot to sentimental, middle-aged Brits because of Motown. We know about black assembly line workers singing their hearts out in the projects. We know the Bill Withers story. Back then, owning a car plant wasn't a liability; it was part of the great post-war push. Those vast, clanking, heavily unionised places, paying hourly rates higher than anything for miles around, spread modest prosperity through their areas. And wider, with components coming from all over.

You get a feeling for our Lost World Midlands car industry from Jonathan Coe's novels (The Rotters' Club etc). It was all completely terrible: the political meddling, the products - design and reliability - and the labour relations. But it held the Eighties' Midlands world together, supported corner shops and chippies. It seems like a particularly British kind of heroic failure 30 years later.

Every Western democracy gets the motor industry it deserves. Ours had that Reg Varney quality, but everywhere - Wolfsburg (Volkswagen), Turin (Fiat) and Boulogne-Billancourt (Renault HQ) - there's a national story with massive mythologies and nostalgia for the world before robotic car plants.

But only in France, where they still have a home-grown motor industry churning away (part of it hyphenated on to the Japanese), could you ever have had a marque and a model romanced by an intellectual quite like Roland Barthes in a book of essays actually called Mythologies. There it is, the Citroën DS of 1957, epically ahead of its time, so designic, so hydraulic, a complete Nouvelle Vague in its own right, the actual contemporary of God-knows-what hopeless British Motor Corporation half-timbered Wolseleys and Rileys.

The DS and the 2CV have anchored Citroën as a one-firm Alliance Française in the heads of generations of amateur car historians and culture vultures across the world. But then a few years back, Citroën went robotic. In an extraordinary commercial, made with what must have been the newest box of tricks going in Soho then (and God knows I'm resistant to high cost/low thought effects), a rather anonymous-looking Citroën re-assembled itself as a dancing robot made of car parts and moved very convincingly to Les Rhythmes Digitales' electro dance track "Jacques Your Body".

It was compellingly strange, completely memorable. Here was a message about an old brand being with it - it's what Americans call "contemporising" - that was somehow bred in the bone.

A lot of car advertising is about reassurance, trying to destabilise negatives about the brand or the country of origin. Once, Italian cars, famous for flair, were famous for rust, too, so there was a lot of banging on about galvanisation. Tremendously exciting stuff. And there were these suspicions about Fiat assembly being slapdash because Italians would rather be singing or loving. So we got that brilliant Eighties commercial about "hand-built by robots" with the pioneering opera track.

Research must have suggested that Citroën was resting on its old laurels, wasn't saying anything salient to under-30s, wasn't culturally with the programme - like France itself. In the new commercial they're using the dancing robot as a presenter, a top and tailer of the most basic price promotion possible. There he is, brilliantly, as a skater, flashing across the frozen lake, keying you in to cool Citroën deals.

There's the absurdly named Xsara Picasso from £8,995. The C1 City Car from £5,795. But you're only watching because R2-D2 might just sweep by again.

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