Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Quit Comparing

Okay, I admit it: I am part of the "cycling industry," meaning I daily earn my bread and (ummm...) butter by supporting the efforts of marketing and selling bikes and bike stuff. I feel compelled, however, to throw out a bit of criticism about what I'll call "mainstream bike marketing."

The new REI "Cycle 2008" catalog hit our mailbox a couple of weeks ago. I have mixed feelings about REI. A lot of great folks work for REI stores, including those in our Twin Cities area. They're avid outdoors-people and know a lot about what they sell. As a monolithic retail presence however, REI has done a lot to adorn the SUVs and bodies of those wanting to exude that image of "outdoorsy-ness". Is that a bad thing? I won't answer because that's not exactly the topic I'm aiming at today. Besides, I'm jaded and my quick answer is bound to be 'yes.'

I have been an REI member since 1991, just before I took my first of a series of jobs in the outdoor industry at shops and manufacturers. Back when I was serving my retail sentence in an indepentendently-owned shop, we clued into the veritable posers right away. We called them the "Steves and Amys" -- all the cute little frat boys and sorority girls who'd come buy Patagucci Synchilla jackets, North Face parkas and Birkenstocks with their parents' money, all so they could adhere to the look about campus. My friends and I were working for peanuts, spending our money on beer and gear, scraping up change to get to the mountains to backpack, climb and paddle on days off. We thought we were special, and somehow better, I suppose. I've since mellowed out a bit.

So this REI catalog literally made me want to gag (even more than a typical REI catalog). On the cover is a dorky cycle commuter dude. (In reality, I'm sure I look a lot like him to general passersby.) He's cranking through blurry traffic in the background. An edgy ad line reads: "UNLIMITED MPG" Bikes, gear, blah, blah, blah."

That's my beef. Pretty simple, eh? Maybe not. Here are the biking photo messages lining the rest of the catalog (CAPS preserved for emphasis): "put it into CRUISE CONTROL"; "POWER STEERING"; "out for a SUNDAY DRIVE"; "LEARNER'S PERMIT"; and "HITCHING A RIDE".

The issue I take is with the propensity to compare the bike to the automobile and cycling experiences as parallel to those of car culture. Why is this seemingly necessary for advertisers? Well, I have a few ideas:

Bikes, like cars, are marketed as status symbols. A common article in bike publications of all kinds lately seems to be the "What does your bike say about you?" feature. It's fun and somewhat tongue-in-cheek, but it's still about status and labeling. The human need to fit into a subgroup is firmly reinforced. If it's that way in cycle lit, what about mainstream? Even among cyclists, we want to establish belonging and assign a place for those we randomly meet based on the bike they ride, e.g. track bike -- posenger; hybrid -- suburbanite; recumbent -- dork; Surly rider -- probably someone you'd get along with as long as a few drinks are involved.

There is a decided lack of alternative frames of reference in our bike culture, or perhaps within our broader culture when talking about bikes. Since WWII, when automobiles were afforded an integral part in the equation denoting components of the "good life", bikes have been progressively classed more and more as toys. Viewed as toys, bikes are for kids, and if adults ride them, it's just for fun -- or "recreation." Lots of avid recreational riders would espouse that philosophy; many who consider themselves "avid cyclists" have yet to consider their bikes as a method of getting around.

To draw another parallel about our nation since WWII, I believe we can only talk about peace in terms of war. That is because all we have known is war. War established our nation as a foremost world superpower. Why then should it be so surprising that we can only talk about transportation in terms of the automobile? The automobile is one of the greatest icons of American culture. As the REI advertising speak quoted above demonstrates, it is not the pure utilitarian consideration of transportation being conveyed. It is convenience and luxury that must be spoken to the consumer. All sorts of products are plugged into this homogenous marketing equation. Frozen meals, cleaning products, snack foods, clothing, electronics, cars. Post-war prosperity stamped convenience and luxury into the minds of Americans. I am asserting that the automobile is the iconic representation of that ideology.

Perhaps consumers can be persuaded to use bikes instead of cars by talking to them in car language. But I don't know. I have as little faith that we can consume and, therefore, buy our way out of a problem as I have in the notion that one can buy perceptions like comfort or luxury.

Bikes are their own entity. They have an autonomous beauty independent of trite comparisons to antiquated automobile nostalgia. Our culture, incredibly limited and myopic at times, needs more languages -- a language of peace for starters. Bicycles need their own language too, because it is not only restrictive, it's insulting to imply a human-powered, two-wheeled replication of the automobile experience. Bicycles are sustainable, productive, enlivening. Cars are polluting, consumptive, sedating.

I heard about a truckers' protest from a friend of mine at lunch today. The truckers blocked lanes and drove 20mph on a busy eastern interstate because diesel is too expensive. Nice direct action, but did they stop to consider that the American government (despite its useless, expensive and murderous war efforts to control oil-producing regions) can do nothing about the dwindling supply of oil left in the earth itself? Today I read on my MSN homepage that they're paying the same high price for gas in Iraq. What is a headline like that supposed to do except fuel [pun intended] more consumer insurgency on the domestic front?

WTF, people? Oil prices aren't just about the fact that you and all your friends want more gas and the Idiot-In-Chief says you deserve more gas. Whomever is elected as president next term can't guarantee you more gas because, guess what, there isn't more to give. You're screwed if you stand by griping about the price of fuel. The earth is being tapped out as you bitch and moan. Like a great big keg at one sleezy, long frat party -- you hit the tap and all that comes out is a distant sucking sound.

I think that's cool. Oil is dead. I think it's cool because I like the good kind of change and too often that kind of change can't happen until something really drastic happens. I also think it's excellent when people decide to live in reality-land. Let enter all that is. Objectify your perceptions. Welcome, friends. Please take a seat. Relax and have a beer. Do a bit of reading by candle-light. Experience the moment. Ponder the peaceful language of self-propulsion. Pedal that peacefulness into the world around you.


Jim Thill said...

Great post. Wish I'd written it.

It's probably ultimately a good thing that bikes are sold by REI with car-culture marketing strategies. Whatever gets folks on the bike. When I started cycling as an adult (I wasn't born into enlightenment), it was all about replacing my car. I home-brewed a ridiculous amount of cargo capacity on my bike and prided myself on never letting distance be a factor. In short, I was trying to live the car life, without the car. I've since become more comfortable with the "limitations" imposed by the bicycle lifestyle, and in fact, see those limitations as strangely liberating.

db said...

Not sure how that may differ from an "elitist" perception of those who ride fixies, SS, Surly or On one bikes. Am I now less because I commute by bike to a government job versus being a messenger on a fixie? Who would have thought that my "surly 1x1" rigid fork would get more attention than my fox fork on my mountain bike? Some would wonder why I might consider spending the cash on a big dummy instead of a cheap car as a step to being crazy

Nathan said...

Bravo. :)

"Bikes are their own entity. They have an autonomous beauty"