Buying American is not as simple as it seems

Do you know what these symbols are?

Pontiac logoToyota logo

Well, they’re a lot of things.

They’re clever marketing. Specifically, they’re branding. They’re the result of intensive study on what colors and shapes motivate people to buy. They’re a source of identity for a whole lot of people. But, all too often these days, they represent a case of mistaken identity.

To be clear, the graphic on the left is Toyota’s logo and the graphic on the right is Pontiac’s. Two different companies, right? Even companies from two different countries. Anyone who has heard and supported the phrase “Buy American” (which is probably the vast majority of Americans, or at least most of those with disposable income) knows which of these logos you’re supposed to gravitate toward when purchasing a new vehicle.

Now let’s break that down a little.

These companies are keeping their logos because the visibility of the logos is important to the branding of the vehicles they create. But those companies are not so very different, and the fact that the Pontiac Vibe and the Toyota Corolla have these different logos on them is somewhat misleading. It’s not because Toyota and Pontiac are up to anything sinister. It’s just an example of how, sometimes, visible rhetoric can keep us from the truth.

Last week, a massive recall was issued on eight kinds of vehicles produced at a California plant. The accelerators stick on these particular eight models, and, well, you can imagine the sorts of disasters that could cause. Among the models recalled were the Vibe and Corolla, as well as six other Toyota vehicles. That’s right. They were all produced at the same plant. A plant on U.S. soil, employing American workers and paying American taxes. (And, so far as I know, the other seven vehicles are still in production while the Vibe–along with Pontiac–is now defunct.)

This complicates the notion of buying American. What does it mean, exactly, to buy American? Did I do my country any good when I purchased a Vibe instead of a Corolla? Or was the visibility of my American logo all “Americanness” that my purchase got me?

It will be interesting to see what happens with branding and logos in the automotive industry as we rebound from the recession. I’m not prepared to make any predictions except for one: There will still be a sense of nationality tied up in company brands that actually has very little footing in reality.


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