NICK BUNKLEY

Why Honda's 'pretty great' image of Detroit was so weird

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Nick Bunkley is an enterprise reporter for Automotive News.
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Today is pretty great -- as long as you drive a Honda Civic and don't live in Detroit.

That seemed to be the message of American Honda's latest commercial, or at least that's how some people here in Bankruptville, USA, interpreted it. Honda reacted quickly, pulling the spot and tweaking it to remove a brief clip of Detroiters protesting outside hearings for the city's landmark municipal bankruptcy case.

The clip, which followed a shot of the word "bankruptcy," was part of a montage showing the endless, soul-crushing misery surrounding us in today's world, all of which magically fades away as soon as you drive the re-redesigned 2014 Civic coupe. At least until the first payment is due.

A Honda spokesman on Saturday said the commercial, titled "Today Is Pretty Great," as originally aired "obviously was not intended to represent Detroit or the challenges experienced by the city, its people or our industry." He said the change "simply reflects our desire to remove anything that would get in the way of our uplifting message."

The thing is, including an image from Detroit in the commercial wasn't really offensive. It was just weird.

Weird because no one outside of Detroit even would have known the shot was Detroit, while people who did know it was Detroit were probably going to complain about it.

People in Detroit tend to have thin skin anytime someone from outside the city says something with even the slightest tinge of negativity. Emphasize the first syllable instead of the second? You know nothing about Detroit. Never mind that some people in Detroit like to say it that way on purpose.

The longtime chief executive of a neighboring county was quoted last week in The New Yorker as saying he used to tell his kids that stopping for gas in Detroit was an invitation to be carjacked. The Detroit Free Press devoted two-thirds of its front page to this topic the next day.

In defending itself, Honda noted that it has operations and employees in and around the Detroit area. Even more reason that it should have known better. It should have known, before the local minister who heads the National Action Network's Michigan chapter had a chance to be publicly offended, that Detroit would be offended by this commercial.

Putting in an image of Detroit -- even though Honda digitally edited the sign on the courthouse to remove the building's full name, which, again, is just weird -- is inviting Detroit's fragile self-esteem to get in the way of your uplifting message.

Honda didn't cry in 2011 when Nissan made a commercial pointing out that its U.S. dealers had more inventory than Honda's after an earthquake and tsunami knocked plants in Japan offline.

Detroit has more important issues than whether Honda is trying to take a subtle jab at a city that Jay Leno takes not-so-subtle jabs at every few weeks. But Honda also could have easily avoided stirring up controversy over an otherwise unremarkable commercial by avoiding one of the most highly charged words in the auto industry: Detroit.

Now that the commercial has been changed, Detroiters can worry again about Jay Leno and attention-seeking local politicians while Honda focuses on uplifting Americans from the drudgery of our daily lives. One Civic coupe at a time.

You can reach Nick Bunkley at nbunkley@crain.com. -- Follow Nick on Twitter

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