It's odd that conservatives are so eager to see the American auto industry go belly-up. These same right-wingers are employing one of the strategies most directly responsible for Detroit's demise in their own (endless) search for a new savior.

To make a long story very short, "badge engineering" is a term used to describe auto manufacturers' strategy of selling the same vehicle under several different brands with only minor cosmetic changes like different hubcaps, upholstery, paint colors, or clip-on plastic bumpers. Rocket scientists like Roger Smith decided that a great way for manufacturers operating multiple brand names (i.e., the Big Three) to save money would be to design just a few vehicles and then sell five versions of each. For example, the recent Chevy TrailBlazer has been or is sold as the Saab 9-7x, Isuzu Ascender, GMC Envoy, Buick Rainier, and Oldsmobile Bravada. Despite many promises from Detroit to quit this ridiculous practice it continues unabated (see the "new" Pontiac G3 and note the odd similarity to the Chevy Aveo, which is itself a badge-engineered copy of the Daewoo Kalos).

Two problems with this strategy stand out. First, it demonstrates naked contempt for customers' intelligence. Americans may not be terribly bright, but only the most knuckleheaded failed to realize that the Buick, Chevy, Olds, and Pontiac dealers (or Ford/Lincoln/Mercury, Chrysler/Plymouth/Dodge) were selling the same damn thing. Second, it only works with good products. When the Ford Taurus was the best-selling car in America it certainly didn't hurt Mercury dealers to offer an identical car, the Mercury Sable. But badge engineering can turn a bad product into a disastrous one. When GM released the ghastly Chevy Uplander minivan it didn't have one flop on its hands; it had four, including the identical Buick Terrazza, Saturn Relay, and Pontiac Montana. This concept escapes the Big Three, who think there are consumers who look at a bad Chevy and say "Gee, I'd buy that steaming pile of shit…if only it had a Pontiac badge on the hood!"

This is where the GOP should pay attention.

South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford is term-limited and stepping down in 2010 to devote his full energy to a kamikaze run at the White House in 2012. His likely replacement, State Rep Nikki Haley, has an excellent chance to win both the primary and an uncompetitive general election in 2010. You heard it here first: if she wins in 2010 it is only a matter of time until conservatives beat the drum for Haley to run for President herself in 2012 or 2016. She'll be their next next big thing. Why? Is Haley a brilliant politician? Of course not. The reason is that prior to marriage and politics Nikki Haley was Nimrata Randhawa, the daughter of Sikh immigrants. Yes, this run-of-the-mill winger is young, female, AND a minority – with a nice, anglicized name that won't frighten away old white people! Sweet jumping Jesus, it's like the heavens parted and God sent Republicans Their Own Obama! Sure, they said the same thing about Palin and Jindal, but Haley is really going to be it!

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The 2012 Republican (optional equipment shown; MSRP $21,499)

The GOP has been selling America the same product for 30 years, an all-purpose generic conservative I'll call the UniCon (not to be confused with Unicron or the unicorn). UniCon worships Reagan, regurgitates supply-side economic theories (name-dropping Hayek and Friedman at regular intervals) and relentlessly campaigns for "lower taxes" and "cutting spending." UniCon loves the military, doesn't negotiate with Our Enemies like the fruity liberals do, and generally believes in re-living the Cold War. UniCon has the predictable hard-right positions on "social issues," solemnly talks of "values" and "life," and mentions "God" like he or she has Tourette's. UniCon rails against the stock culture war Enemies List: unions, the media, academia, activist judges, the ACLU, "inner cities," Hollywood, secularism, socialism, tinpot dictators, Big Government, instant replay, the Yeti, and fluoridated water.

Newt Gingrich is an example of the UniCon. People don't like Newt Gingrich. His career on the national stage was brief and now he's wringing an income out of the right-wing media/foundation circuit while deluding himself into thinking that he's getting back into politics. The GOP sees that he lacks broad appeal – and they conclude that the packaging is the problem. See, they know that you like everything he stands for, so rather than questioning the message they simply search for a new way to deliver it. They're quite convinced that you're saying "Gee, I'd definitely vote for that…if only it had tits." Hence every person the party offers up as a savior is, in any meaningful way, indistinguishable from Newt Gingrich.

At a complete loss for new ideas, the GOP badge engineers the same candidate repeatedly. You want one with a cowboy hat? Here's George W. Bush. Want one sans penis? Sarah Palin! Do you prefer black? Take this Steele fellow for a test drive. If black isn't your color, how about a less threatening minority, perhaps Indian? You'll love Bobby Jindal. Are a traditionalist looking for the no-frills model in classic white? Have a gander at Mitch Daniels or Tim Pawlenty. Would you prefer your white guy with a drawl? Mark Sanford or Haley Barbour should do! We've got a different (looking) candidate for every conceivable taste! Mormons. Catholics. Jews. Senators. Governors. Businessmen. Hollywood celebrities. Retired athletes. Young. Old. Fat. Slim. Bald. Hirsute. We can even offer exotic custom jobs like "young Indian-American female Governor." How's that for customer service?

Once you get past the different exteriors, of course, these candidates are carbon copies of one another. They are UniCon. Like their counterparts in the corporate offices of the Big Three, the GOP is convinced that the underlying product is great and the public is simply waiting to find a body style that it likes. Stupidity is stubbon; even bankruptcy hasn't convinced the auto manufacturers of their errant ways. So I'm bullish on the number of electoral drubbings the GOP can endure before the light finally goes on.

16 thoughts on “BADGE ENGINEERING”

  • The GOP will never change. A political party grounded in the principle of status quo is not naturally going to be able to adapt to voting trends and new ideas. When the liberals screw up, they say to themselves "let's go back to the drawing board." When the conservatives hit rock bottom they say "Let's just use red chalk this time."

  • Actually, a definition that reads "Attempting the same thing over and over while expecting different results" is a definition of insanity. I'm thoroughly convinced a significant portion of our country is certifiable.

  • Actually, Big Three top management did not delude themselves that the product was great. They deluded themselves that it was good enough. The GOP has a characteristically different sort of dementia. It's not matters of degree or skewed comparisons. they believe black is white, up is down, and hot is cold.

    Big three execs were merely incompetent business people. As Naomi Klein pointed our on Bill Maher's show recently, being Republican is some sort of personality disorder.

  • Fulcanelli says:

    I worked in the parts department of a a GM dealership when the practice of "Badge Engineering" was at it's worst. Some GM model/platforms like the J-body overlapped all five divisions: the Chevy Cavalier, Buick Skylark, Pontiac J-2000, Oldsmobile Firenza and the Cadillac Cimarron were all the same damn car with the aforementioned subtle cosmetic differences. (FWIW there were a few different engine variations.)

    This bloated, wasteful duplication between models led to a parts support system within GM that was one of the most colossal wastes of money and resources that you could ever conceive of, and was definitely one of the contributing factors in GM's demise.

    The parallel you draw between the BIG 3 and the GOP with it's identical, just re-badged candidates is perfect. The cars were unoriginal and boring and sucked as do the candidates and their ideas and governing philosophy so the Grand Old Party will suffer the same fate as GM and Chrysler.

    Only this time, when they come looking they get an anvil tossed to 'em… NO FUCKING BAILOUT!

  • 1) This analogy is a good one. I know this, because I'll be thinking about the analogy all day, now.
    2) We the people don't want the underlying product to change, do we? I mean, the Republican faithful around here still create a mythology around Reagan. I think the odd thing is that this is *not* just badge engineering. It's sort of the reverse. They change the underlying product but sell it as though it *hasn't* changed. George W. Bush was pretty different from Reagan. But the GOP failthful rallied behind the brand, instead of the product.
    3) Yes, must think more about this.
    4) H2 = Chevy Tahoe (for more money, with worse fuel efficiency and towing capacity and…). H2 sold a TON out here. I still contend that there's a huge fraction of the population that does *not* buy on utility, but on ego. Maybe we can work that into your analogy of badge engineerig, too. People vote for the one with the right emblem, or who makes them feel better about themselves, rather than the one whose policies they'll agree with(?)

  • Of course, where you make your big mistake is your assumption that the American voting public are not stupid enough to vote for the same thing that has failed repeatedly. History tells us otherwise. Given a few years to forget and/or mis-remember the disasters of the past (with the essential assistance of the mass media), American voters will be only too ready to give the Republicans (campaign slogan: "This time for sure!") a narrow victory in the official vote tallies. How many Volares got sold after the unGodly 1977 and 1878 models? I bet a fair number.. To coin a phrase, "No-one ever went broke under-estimating the intelligence of the American public".

  • Loud cheers all the way. But from the consumer side: who does the GOP have left? Is it still counting heavily on rural America? Because their "Real Americans", while not being intelligent political consumers, originally turned away from the Democratic Party when it became overrun by non-whites and bra burners.

    Will tokenism work as a rebranding strategy? Moving away from their Fat Old White Golfer mascot may hurt them with the white middle class deserters, despite Pat Buchanan's generation finally succumbing to CPD. The tent revival wing of the NASCAR crowd wouldn't vote for a non-white even if he could walk on water. So are the GOP mostly courting the Black and Hispanic votes? Will shouting loudly enough about abortion and gays woo them back? At what cost would the left wing want to keep them?

    Abortion: can it be debated sanely? Who will be the next Supreme? We'll see. Likewise, if Obama sacrifices gays the way Clinton did (first as a threat, then as a bargaining chip, then as a burnt offering to conservatives) we'll see an indicator of whether we're really rebuilding America…or whether the left, assimilating so much of the right, is not listing heavily to starboard.

  • It'll be interesting to see what happens to the GOP after the recession's ravages diminish somewhat. People don't give a rat's ass about "social values" when they're starving in the dark with no heat–they care about economic issues, which is the one area where Big Government can and does help the poor immeasurably, and where Democrats have Republicans beaten hands down. The GOP must to some extent be hurting because, in the face of this crisis, they're peddling the same song-and-dance that even the moronic's moron knows led the country into this mess–all we've heard from Reps for 30 years is that Deregulation Is Good, and now we're seeing what happens when the car hits the abutment when no one's wearing that seatbelt.


    When monetary matters eventually turn around, won't the bone-deep conservatism of the country eventually allow the GOP to trot out the same dog-and-pony to a crowd that cheers it as a "welcome return to traditional values"?

  • Great analogy. The Daily Show had a good piece on this not long ago, but it's been evident for a long time, the GOP only wants to re-package, they don't want to improve anything.

  • Apt analogy, but your auto industry history is off. It wasn't Roger Smith. It was Charles Kettering back in the 1920s — Kettering figured out you could sell the same car at different price levels by implementing simple cosmetic changes, with Chevy at the bottom and Cadillac at the top. Kettering's also the guy who came up with planned obsolesence — the man was a marketing genius. You're giving American consumers way too much credit for having any intelligence when it comes to car shopping. They'll still go for Status first, hence the inexplicable lust some people have for the Cadillac Escalade when it's just a piece of shit Suburban with extra chrome, or when they prefer the ridiculous Lincoln Navigator over an ordinary Ford Expedition.

    If people really wanted mechanical reliability and/or quality, no one would ever buy a Jaguar, especially since it evolved into a mutated Taurus.

  • Crap. Accidently hit submit too soon. Meant to add "and if they wanted honest politicians, no one currently holding office would be there."

  • Yes, it was Smith. Prior to 1980 each division made its own engines. Even cars that shared body work were not mechanically identical. When he took over they abandoned that strategy, centralizing the production of drivetrains and then using the brands to simply wrap different packages around them.

  • How is this any different than the legions of mediocre Democrats out there? If you have any ideals whatsoever you will be destroyed by the other side so you end up with a shit salesman who puts Merril Lynch's boys in charge of a 3 trillion dollar bank give away and waffles on torture and military tribunals.

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