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May 3, 2010

Anthony Suau: Sex and the Time Warp

This is the third post in a series: “Anthony Suau on The Great Recession.”

American classics: sex and cars. Detroit has been using glamor and beauty images to sell automobiles since the dawn of the industry.

But in the context of bankruptcies and uncertainty about the future, it feels forced, Suau’s photo, above, reminiscent of Diane Arbus’s portrait of the Wade sisters, as she was probing a deeper, darker layer of American culture.

The girls, in fact, were perfectly normal, and grew up to live fruitful lives. But in her photograph they look like freaks — not because they were freaks, but because Arbus was interested in the freakishness of the normal — an underlying contradiction of the postwar industrial boom.

Reflecting on that period, especially the Sixties, when everything we knew as normal suddenly didn’t look so normal anymore, today’s auto industry — struggling for survival — feels caught in a time warp.  Detroit seems stuck in that mindset in which sex and steel were used to appeal to the comfort of conformity.  The models are wearing the same dress, the same high-heeled shoes, presenting the cars in the same old way. It’s like the thinking remains: if your Dad drove a Chevrolet, you should drive a Chevrolet.

More than fifty years later, that the car companies continue to exemplify this approach is what’s freakish.

And then, to have attractive women at an auto show is nothing new. But if the models still look good, using sex to sell cars is more contradictory now.  If the car companies really had faith in this next generation of cars, they wouldn’t be offering us this anachronism. With the industry not just floundering, but looking for an entirely new paradigm, the use of the hottest girls to sell the hottest cars is like Detroit trying to convince itself it’s still viable.

–Alan Chin and Michael Shaw


Captions: Detroit, Michigan, January 15, 2010
The Charity preview evening at the North American International Auto Show at the Cobo Center in Detroit. The gala is the biggest party of the year in a town that lives and dies by the auto industry. The event saw men in tuxes and women in gowns that were eye-catching. In all between 7,000 to 8,000 attended the event.

NEXT: Fun In A Fallen City

About the Photographer


  • Gasho

    Did you expect them to install a ball hitch and hook up a wagon full of hay or something?

    Of course they are going to use what they think is their best pitch to sell their shiny new cars. They may be in trouble in the context of history (and especially recent history) but doing something radically different in the showroom would be even riskier than using the tried and true methods to make their products look good.

    Until we get rid of the cars and start using some other technologies and other forms of transportation — or stop moving ourselves around so much to get things done — this is it. Sorry to say it, but there you go.

  • Robert Hariman

    Sure, we need cars and car companies need to advertise, but that doesn’t excuse much. Shiny displays are one thing, feminine clones are another. Somebody ought to tell Detroit that a lot more than cars has changed since they last bothered to ask.

  • acm

    Wait, are you asking me to accept that sex no longer sells? That women are no longer objectified? That sports cars are no longer about power and thrust?

    I call this willful ignorance at best. Detroit isn’t out of touch, on this at least; the tragedy here is that we still live in a society populated largely with troglodites. Sorry about that.

  • acm

    (oh, and if it’s the “clone” issue or interchangability of women that seems to be squicking you, then this previous post should have prepared you pretty well for the idea that that’s *exactly* how the marketing world sees women — cogs in their sales machine.)

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