Nov 24, 2009

Stupid Motos for Stupid Times

Hardly's new ad campaign spouts brilliant prose like:
  • "It's a free country, but have you felt like that lately?"
  • "There's a reason they call if revolutions per minute."
  • "Freedom ain't quiet. Raise your voice at"
At you can read brilliant and highway-friendly comments like,
  • "Quit staring and just get out of the way."
  • "Hello may fat lady may moon light in the dark I see you your sparks in may soul lov . . . you borm may live in hell of kisses."
  • "If it don't rumble like a Harley it probably ain't a Harley. . . "
  • "There's nothing like the rumble of a Harley beneath you and the peacefulness of the open road."
  • "I m free coutry beatutifull."
  • "Harley Davidson. Loud and Proud."
For a change, the above spelling errors and crazed grammar are not mine. I just wrote 'em as I read 'em. There are hundreds of similar and much crazier sentiments on the site. I'm not sure what Harley was intending, but what they provided was a boatload of justification for the general feeling that Harley owners are less-than-brilliant and somewhat unstable.

Buell's last ad was particularly sad and, unintentionally, informative: "Many people were happy Buell had a stellar AMA season. Then again, many poeple were disturbed by it." Apparently, some of the disturbed were the Harley executives who couldn't figure out how to market a motorcycle after years of selling life-style.

Buell, of course, is dead. Harley dumped the Troy, WI division in mid-November. On their way out, Buell's marketing department left an interesting mark on motorcycle etiquite with their "It’s ok not to wave back" ad from the company's 2009 October magazine campaign. Lots of motorcyclists took issue with the knee-dragging street rider who is too occupied with dangerously pretending to be a racer to acknowledge a fellow rider. To me, that raised hand might be a warning rather than a wave. As in, "Slow down, douchebag. The road is about to surprise your squidly dumb ass." The non-Buell rider is obviously armored up and at least as capable as the wannabe road racer.

I can't say I'm a 100%-waver. I often wave or nod my helmet at other riders. I usually ignore parades of motorcylces. I'm too busy trying to figure out where they are going so I can go somewhere else. I probably wouldn't wave much when I'm winding my way through two-lane Rocky Mountain roads or wrestling the V-Strom through deep gravel. Some places, motorcycles are common enough that waving gets out of hand. In Minnesota, that's rarely a problem. For me, it's a reflex more than some kind of social comment or statement of solidarity. When I started riding, I saw another bike on the road or trail about once every zillion miles. So, it just felt natural to acknowledge the existence of another nut on a motorcycle. I've been doing that for so long I don't even think about it at this ripe old age. Some motorcyclists are so far outside of the group I'd consider to be among my peers, such as the packs of gangster-posing, loud pipe, traffic-jamming parades or Buell's knee-dragging example, that it doesn't occur to me to bother waving. Folks who are risking my life or rights don't engender a feeling of solidarity.

Marketing is all about coming up with a glib one-liner that convinces the sheeple to part with their money. Sometimes glib and irresponsible are closely coupled. These days, I really miss Honda's old "You meet the nicest people on a Honda" tactic. I can't help but wonder if the boom in ridership that US motorcycling experienced during the 70's wasn't in some part assisted by the crazy idea that normal people might ride a motorcycle? In fact, a whole lot of very normal people got into motorcycling at that time and many of them are just now approaching the time in their lives where their physical abilities aren't up to the task. When those folks leave motorcycles for motorized wheelchairs, who is going to take their place?

If the industry is lucky, the kids on Suzuki's V-Strom, Kawasaki's Versys, and Honda's new NT700V sport-tourer are the future. (Yeah, and the no-dead Buell Ulysses almost fell into that bracket, the last US-manufactured motorcycle I ever considered owning. If Buell had lasted long enough to put a decent motor in the Ulysses, I'd have bought one to replace my V-Strom. I guess I'm lucky they died when they did rather than after I'd spent my money.) The future of motorcycling, I think, is in efficiency, versatility, and adventure. Look at the bikes the Big 4 are selling all over Asia and Europe and you'll see that big, fast, inefficient, and impractical are American-only engineering goals. The rest of the world wants motorcycles and scooters that are stingy fuel users, fun, quick (not powerful), practical, useful, and cool looking. We can only hope that something inspires young Americans to want something similar because, otherwise, motorcycles are going to be a thing of the past, industry-wise, here.

In fact, that segment of the motorcycle business is down more than 65% and outside of industry magazines, nobody cares. That's no formula for longevity.None of those manufacturers make anything resembling an efficient motorcycle. The closest thing to fun you can get riding a hippobike is found when you park it and step into the bar for beer. Adventure? Get serious. while it's an adventure trying to turn or stop one of these monsters, you'd never take one someplace that wasn't level, paved, and well-populated. All we're left with are companies that build huge 1950's styled and engineered monuments to the nation's past engineering skill and habits. If American car manufacturers stuck with that formula there wouldn't have been anything left to bail out. If HD, Victory, Indian, and Big Dog all went bust tomorrow, it wouldn't amount to a blip on the US economy.

(I wouldn't be surprised if I'm forgetting somebody. Since they all build the same bike, I'm probably forgetting several. I can't find the motivation to care.)


Anonymous said...

Everything is life style in marketing, which is why quality became irrelevant. We must all yearn to appear to be members of specific in-groups, such as the movie version of black street toughs, holding their "nines" sideways and appearing always to be imminently stepping out of their pants.

Gotta be a MAVERICK, a REBEL (dig that yell, Festus), and ya gotta have $20,000-worth of credit for the bike and accessories, But isn't that like being any other oxymoron, such as 'military innovator'?


T.W. Day said...

I don't know what to think of marketing. On one hand, I have doubts that the results of most marketing campaigns repay the expense. On the other, if marketing does work I have doubts about the intelligence of our species.

Quality, however, is something to talk about. In manufacturing, we have a simple definition for quality: "a product that meets or exceeds the expectations of the customer." Until Chinese manufacturing took over the world, I think most products withstood examination on this standard. Many still do. I have a 3 year old Nokia cell phone that has been in my gear bag for 30,000 motorcycle miles, gets charged once every 3-4 months, has been soaked, dropped, and cursed at and it still works as well as it did the day I bought it. A lot of electronic products are insanely reliable and dirt cheap.

Your column this month was about how dependable and precision FI systems are compared to clunky, imprecise carburetors. I can remember feeling unease at leaving points for the same reason I clung to carbs. In the end, even though I can't repair my FI or my electronic ignition, I don't care because they rarely break. Way more rarely than mechanical systems did.

Maybe the problem is, as I suspect, the quality of most products (outside of food) is so good that there is nothing to differentiate products other than the imaginary lifestyle differences that marketing dweebs promote? That's kind of cool, in a weird way. It wasn't true 20 years ago. Quality was all over the place, especially in US-made products.

T.W. Day

Anonymous said...

One of the Honda ad men told a story of coming home to find his son and friends poring over a motorcycle magazine, exclaiming at the pictures. He asked them how they would decide which machine to buy. They replied that it would be the coolest-looking one. But what about quality? Oh, no problem, man - anything in the market is up to the level. So that just leaves cool.


T.W. Day said...

"Cool" has the convenient quality of being immeasurable, so marketing dweebs can waste time and money pursuing it without ever admitting they are clueless. Apple computers strike me as being more cool than useful. Every year, Mac users point to the new Mac designs as examples of "cool" and "new." The processors, much of the software, and all of the peripherals are inferior or equal to all other systems' equipment. The downside is all that cool is easily dated. What looked ginch last year looks obsolete this year. So, the Mac users have to upgrade just to stay cool. And I buy the last generation machine, slap on the software I need and pay $400 for last year's $4,000 Mac.

Yeah, I admit it. I buy second hand clothes, too. Used cars, used bikes, used bicycles, used tools, and anything else I can avoid paying "cool" prices for.

Anonymous said...

Look at the numbers though. Way more HDs sold than anything else. The old adage holds--the way to make money is to imitate a company making money. So, all the Japanese companies make HD look alikes because they sell the most. Hence the marketing types in these companies concentrate on pitching the products that are selling. It's a lot easier to market something that is selling anyway. It then looks like the marketing is working, so you get more of the same. It is an endless loop until something comes along, like the recent economic crunch to shake things up and maybe change what sells. A gas crisis might do the same. The recent gas hiccup spurred sales of scooters, which I think meet your criteria of a two-wheeled vehicle that makes a lot of sense. By the way, I have done enough adventurous, maybe slightly dangerous, things to realize that most people have no burning desire in life other than to be comfortable. They feel more comfortable within a big, warm, fuzzy group than doing something where they have to take a few risks or maybe go somewhere that isn't easy. HD provides that ambience in spades.

T.W. Day said...

Based on HD's accounting situation, I'm not sure "sold" is the right word for what they did with their hippobikes. I totally agree with you on all other points.

Anonymous said...

yep the US is strange... i have 2 trans alps. one with a hawk 650 mtr even. then there is the 7 dollar! xt 600 that i rode to canada off-road two months later. the electric start xt everybody hated. have an 86 reflex and ride a suzuki gn 400 as well. ride a bandit 1200 set up with the old suz gs 1150 fairing for trips. yes it is nice to own useful bikes. i like pacific coasts a lot and tdm 850ies are neat too. nice writing. thanks ~ stephanie