It’s the stuff of which public relations nightmares are made.
For the past couple of years Dodge has sponsored Motor Trend‘s “Roadkill” show, which can be thought of as a generic white-label take on Fast N’ Loud. It’s worth noting that Dodge did several promotions with Rawlings before parting ways with him and settling for the Roadkill team; the brand appears to believe that its heartland audience is best reached through flamboyant/quasi-authentic/redneck-chic YouTube personalities. What that says about FCA’s view of its customers is an exercise best left to the reader.
This past weekend, Dodge and Roadkill teamed for “Roadkill Nights on Woodward,” a staged car show and street-drag event in Detroit. There’s been no small amount of interest in this among the company’s owner base and from what I can see the event was a rip-roaring success, chock-full of Vipers and Demons and whatnot. Whenever an automaker spends this much money on any public relations exercise, there is always a tremendous amount of data deep-diving done immediately afterwards to demonstrate ROI of the expenditure via social media visibility, buff-book coverage, and mainstream mentions. Given the big turnout both online and in real life, I’m sure Dodge and its marketing partners were looking forward to the Monday meeting where they could pat themselves on the back for a job well done.
As it turns out, this weekend was an absolute barn burner of Dodge-branded media exposure. Unfortunately, the Dodge in question wasn’t a Demon lifting its front wheels on Woodward. Instead, it was a V6-powered 2010 Challenger that was driven into a crowd of anti-white supremacist protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, causing one fatality and multiple injuries.
The odd coincidence of a “Roadkill”-themed promotion with a Challenger-caused hit-and-run fatality in Charlottesville has pundits on both sides of America’s culture war salivating — and with this unforeseen notoriety comes an unusual, and nearly unprecedented, demand.
Last year, when Abdul Razak Ali Artan used a Honda Civic to run down several victims on the campus of Ohio State University before stabbing more people with a butcher knife, the fact that he used a 2002 Honda Civic sedan for the assault was treated as no more relevant than the kind of shoes he was wearing or the contents of his previous day’s lunch. This seems eminently reasonable and fair to me; after all, Honda had no responsibility for Abdul Razak Ali Artan’s attack nor was the Civic deliberately engineered to injure people. Quite the opposite, really; attempting to engineer safe interactions with pedestrians has been a primary manufacturer focus in these past few years, leading to the bluff-fronted, high-hooded aesthetic that has even managed to make its way into the C7 Corvette’s design language.
Unfortunately for Dodge, some people on the far right decided to make jokes about “Dodge #Roadkill” on Twitter, leading to a chorus of all-too-predictable demands that Dodge “disavow” the Charlottesville attack. This is absurd on its face; there is precisely zero chance that FCA and its Dodge brand would endorse, promote, or even accept the use of its products in an act of murder. Furthermore, the unfortunate coincidence of the “Roadkill” event and the Charlottesville attack is simply that — a coincidence. Finally, the word “roadkill” refers to animals, not people, so unless you truly believe that Dodge views American citizens of any race or political affiliation as mere dead animals on the street then the entire controversy is obviously a complete fabrication.
The proper response for FCA in this situation is no response at all. The company is not responsible for actions taken in a 2010 Challenger. Its marketing for the Challenger lacks even the slightest bit of a suggestion that it would be a good idea to use a Challenger as an instrument of murder. Honda had no comment on Abdul Razak Ali Artan and Dodge need have no comment on this attack. Even an expression of sympathy is probably too much, because it implies that this incident is somehow more tragic than any other time a pedestrian was struck and killed by a Challenger and therefore gives credence to the ridiculous notion that there are different classes of victims out there, with some having smaller souls than others.
The people at Roadkill were the first to break under the pressure with this Facebook post on Monday morning:
Roadkill strongly condemns the violence committed and racism displayed in Charlottesville. We mourn the tragic deaths of Heather Heyer and Virginia state police troopers Lt. H. Jay Cullen and Berke M.M. Bates, and we wish a full and speedy recovery to those injured in Charlottesville. We are taking legal action to stop hate groups from unlawfully using our brand to promote their reprehensible agenda. Roadkill is a popular automotive adventure show and its event, Roadkill Nights, is a family-friendly car festival event in Detroit that celebrates drag racing and hot rod culture. We have no association with the hateful events that took place in Charlottesville.
Dodge has removed its Roadkill banner ads but has not taken any further action. And this is where it should end — except that a considerable number of activists have decided that Dodge does bear some responsibility for the killing and/or that Dodge should take legal action against “Nazis.” One particularly unhinged fellow wrote in Citylab:
when the first images emerged of the vehicle that plowed into a crowd of anti-fascist protesters in downtown Charlottesville on Saturday, I thought, Yep, that makes sense… The Challenger is among the most retrograde of machines, a scrupulously literal homage to the brand’s 1970 model, except bulked up. You can drive one off the dealer lot with more than 800 horsepower, an absurd figure for a civilian-operated vehicle… there’s a kind of awful logic in seeing a huge American muscle car as the killing machine of choice for the Nazis and white supremacists that besieged Charlottesville. The Dodge Challenger—even more so than its two rivals, the Ford Mustang and Chevy Camaro—is a kind of mechanical embodiment of Making America Great Again, a dinosaur car utterly shameless in its evocation of a never-was national past… In the toxic stew of racial resentments and masculine anxieties we saw in the young white mobs of Charlottesville, the weaponized nostalgia that helped fuel the killer’s car is a small ingredient—but an ingredient nonetheless… for most of us, driving is the most dangerous thing we do every day. There’s a lot of evidence that we’re getting too dumb and too distracted to be allowed to do it much longer. To this debate now comes a fresh argument: Some of us are also too evil.
The calls for Dodge to “disavow” the Challenger’s use in the Charlottesville crash should therefore be seen in a larger context; Dodge is also expected for apologize for “toxic masculinity” and “absurd power” and “masculine anxiety”. In other words, some of these people think Dodge should apologize for the Challenger’s existence.
Those of you who understand the highly-politicized mindset know the apology must also be accompanied by re-education and/or penance. In this case, people want Dodge to spend money on lawsuits against right-wing websites:
I’m reminded of nothing so much as the “loyalty oath” section of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. You can read the section here but it’s worth noting two particular quotes:
“What makes you so sure Major Major is a Communist?”
“You never heard him denying it until we began accusing him, did you?
“The important thing is to keep them pledging,” he explained to his cohorts. “It doesn’t matter whether they mean it or not. That’s why they make little kids pledge allegiance even before they know what ‘pledge’ and ‘allegiance’ means.”
For the people who want Dodge to disavow the “toxic masculinity” of the Challenger, this attack is a convenient pretext to demand an apology for current Challengers and a loyalty oath that there will be no future cars that remind anybody of the Challenger. Let’s hope Dodge has the courage to ignore these people.
The freedom to choose and purchase your own car, even if it’s something as “toxic” (their word) or “awesome” (my word) as a Challenger, is a freedom that should be preserved as long as we can manage. Let’s not permit activists to turn that into, well, roadkill.