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May 24, 2007 10:54 PM   Subscribe

What's the cultural history behind car dealerships in the US flying massive flags?

The Colbert Report mentioned a Hummer dealer who wanted to fly a 60x30ft flag. He's not alone: to my foreign eyes, the biggest, gaudiest displays of the flag are invariably over car dealerships, leading me to joke that if aliens landed in the US, they'd think cars were the dominant species. It was mentioned in the blue that giant flags are often a way to bypass zoning restrictions on promotional banners, but does anyone have an insight into the origins and development of the 'big flag = car lot' phenomenon?
posted by holgate to Society & Culture (27 answers total)
posted by rob511 at 11:20 PM on May 24, 2007

Maybe it has something to do with our uniquely American car culture. "See the USA in your Chevrolet" was Chevy's tagline back in the 50s-ish. We identify cars with being American, like BBQs. Maybe they also do it to subconsciously guilt us into buying American-made cars.
posted by HotPatatta at 12:35 AM on May 25, 2007

It's sort of the obvious answer, but car-buying is rather patriotic for a surprising number of people. It might be the only thing keeping US car companies alive right now, with all their screwups. So, nationalism is big with car dealerships.
posted by tmcw at 12:39 AM on May 25, 2007

attracting attention, plain and simple. if the community would allow it, dealerships would float giant nudes in the air. our flag is a uniquely beloved symbol to most americans, never in poor taste, and the bigger the better.
posted by bruce at 1:38 AM on May 25, 2007

Maybe they all just want to be like this crazy Santa pirate.
posted by BostonJake at 2:49 AM on May 25, 2007

Pissing contest. "Old Hank at Bumfuck Motors down the road just a huge fucking flag, boss. It makes ours look stupid."

[I personally think having flags everywhere you look is obnoxious]
posted by chuckdarwin at 3:39 AM on May 25, 2007

Because everyone knows, people buy cars on impulse,

Am I that unusual that I shop for cars by brand, and will have located dealers before I leave the house? I never noticed the flags at dealers. Maybe this is some post 9/11 development?
posted by Goofyy at 3:47 AM on May 25, 2007

I haven't noticed this either. Is it happening only at American-make dealers? If so it could be part of the whole "be patriotic, buy American" crapola.
posted by boomchicka at 4:01 AM on May 25, 2007

There is a famous quote from the head of General Motors back in 1952, "What is good for the country is good for General Motors, and what's good for General Motors is good for the country.

That would make a dealership like an Embassy or something. Or maybe a capitol building. So yeah, there should be lots of flags.
posted by extrabox at 4:08 AM on May 25, 2007

It bypasses the natural "I fucking hate giant fucking gaudy signs spoiling the view" by being a symbol people have been trained to love and respect (and fear to criticize) that nonetheless is a giant fucking gaudy sign spoiling the view.

Some folk won't stand for it and see right through it:
A local car dealer has been ordered to take down his giant American flag after neighbors complained. The "Review-Journal" says the Las Vegas City Council ordered "Towbin Hummer" owner Dan Towbin to bring down his 30-foot by 60-foot Old Glory, which has been flying from a 100-foot-tall pole. Towbin received permission for his flag last year, with a six month review. But neighbors near the SUV dealership on West Sahara Avenue and Lindell Road complained about the noise of the flapping flag, and objected to its large size. Towbin had said he would build a veterans memorial at the flag's base, but some veterans claim the flag is nothing more than a sales ploy. Towbin has 60 days to take down the flag, but he is considering a lawsuit to overturn the city council's vote.
But others think the giant flags are wonderful and would question whether you love the country if you do not love the giant advertising flag:
I live on the eastern side of Greater Cleveland, near O'Brien's other dealership, where he flies the large American Flag near this section of Interstate 90. To be perfectly honest, I get choked up every time I go by it as it breathtaking to see this symbol and tribute to the freedoms we all take for granted from time to time waving proudly in the breezes stirred by the winds off Lake Erie. I think, it would difficult for anyone that loves this country not to agree, so I think ultimately both sides will find common ground and get this symbol of all that is right with America up where it belongs, flying majestically over the west side of Cleveland as it does on the east side.
I believe it's a relatively new fad (it wasn't happening 15 years ago, as I recall) and that car dealers do it because they are among the few people (generally short-fingered vulgarians?) you'll find with the wide-open real estate, the shamelessness, the tastelessness, and the desperation to be noticed.

Here's what one dealer says:
Kenny Cresswell, general manager for Fitzgerald Auto Mall in Parole, said the 20-by-38 foot flag outside his business is displayed as a "show of patriotism" that provides a sense of pride for employees. The flag also serves as a landmark for drivers and customers alike, he said.

"We say Fitzgerald on Route 50 with the big flag," said Mr. Cresswell, whose company spends $800 each year on flag maintenance.

The flag weighs 60 pounds and is usually replaced twice a year. It's checked every morning, and although it requires about four hours of maintenance a month it's never down for too long.
posted by pracowity at 4:46 AM on May 25, 2007

Is it happening only at American-make dealers?

The biggest flag I pass by on a regular basis is at a Toyota dealership; of course, many imports are touting their US connections these days, so that doesn't necessarily contradict your theory.
posted by TedW at 5:29 AM on May 25, 2007 requires about four hours of maintenance a month...

Huh? What kind of maintenance does a flag need? I can just imagine the conversation:

"Where's the big flag?'

"Oh, it's in the shop. The flag guy said the grommets needed a lube job and the canton was out of alignment."
posted by TedW at 5:33 AM on May 25, 2007 [1 favorite]

Maybe this is some post 9/11 development?

No, car dealers flew huge flags even when it was "uncool" to fly the flag back in the '90s.
posted by smackfu at 5:39 AM on May 25, 2007

As pracowity's first quote says, "its a sales ploy." Signage laws prevent dealerships from putting up enormous billboards to draw attention/customers. Dealers are taking advantage of jingoistic attitudes and putting up enormous flags as billboards knowing that local authorities would have political difficulty in forcing them to remove the flags.

Frankly, I find it pretty disgusting, but then again I find car dealerships to be pretty disgusting in general.
posted by Pollomacho at 5:43 AM on May 25, 2007

Oh, and they've been doing it for decades. I remember asking my father about it in the 70's.
posted by Pollomacho at 5:47 AM on May 25, 2007

Pollomacho and pracowity are right--at heart, it's a just a jingoistic take on a marketing gimmick. It's akin to the enormous blow-up gorilla on the dealership roof, or the TV ad with the dealer sitting backward on a cow.

The depressing thing about all that is that it _works_. Having just left the world of auto marketing, one of the eye-opening things I learned is that the main reason dealers keep churning out the cheesy ads and tacky marketing gimmicks is that they actually have an impact on their traffic and sales. A lot of these guys will actually try anything to see if it'll work, and that stuff keeps working best for them.

Like it or not, the broader population really does respond to big flags, giant blow-up animals and all that crappy schtick.
posted by LairBob at 6:37 AM on May 25, 2007

Balloons, too. Around here, huge numbers of balloons appear to be required equipment at every car dealership. Last time we bought a car we told the sales guy that we'd only buy if he included a bunch of balloons. So he did.

I suspect it's just feel-good-factorism. They just want to make you feel happy in a lowest-common-denominator sort of way. People like balloons. People like the flag. If people like the flag, they must really like a big flag.
posted by normy at 6:41 AM on May 25, 2007

Like it or not, the broader population really does respond to big flags, giant blow-up animals and all that crappy schtick.

There's an auto dealership just outside of Knoxville which has a robotic gorilla at the front of the lot. Whenever it isn't raining... that gorilla is out there doing the robot.

I used to drive by that place on the way to work, and that gorilla robot made me feel much more warmly toward the place than giant flags.
posted by zebra3 at 7:29 AM on May 25, 2007

Great responses so far. Anyone got memories of big gaudy flags as far back as the 50s or 60s? Or were large inappropriate Native American mascots more de rigeur then?
posted by holgate at 7:50 AM on May 25, 2007

I always thought that Bob Evans had the largest flag in town. We used to joke that if you could see the flag from blocks away, it meant there was a Bob Evans underneath it.
posted by jaimystery at 8:38 AM on May 25, 2007

I'll chime in that it's not just car dealerships or the USA. Far and away the largest Canadian flag I've ever seen is flying over a local supermarket. And it's pure marketing, the supermarket is on the wrong side of a mall to be seen from the freeway but boy howdy, when the wind is blowing you can see the flag for several minutes. It's been flying there since the 80s.
posted by Mitheral at 8:48 AM on May 25, 2007

I hate the flags...

The local dealer I've always done business with was sold a few years back to some idiot from out of town. He put up a million flag poles...

The bottom line for me was when he started putting religious and pro-war statements on his sign.

I drove 20 miles to buy my last car, instead of the half mile to his dealership.

I've got to wonder if, with the growing objection to our lovely war and moronic government, we're going to see a few of those flags quietly disappear.
posted by HuronBob at 9:30 AM on May 25, 2007

HuronBob, why do you hate America?

Seriously though, without accompanying pro-war signs, flags on their own don't represent support for either the war or the present administration. Heck, I personally am rather fond of certain aspects of America though I tend to find issues with the President and his war. I still prefer to think of the flag (among other things) as a symbol of the positive aspects of America rather than a symbol of things I find negative despite both sides of the equasion adopting it for jingoistic purposes and sleezy businesspeople abusing it as a marketing ploy.

PS: See you at the big Memorial Day mattress blow-out down at the Matress Hut! I hear they've got 10% off on Sealy Posturepedics!
posted by Pollomacho at 9:56 AM on May 25, 2007

Car dealerships on San Jose's Auto Row in the 80's had hundreds of flags, and the sight made me hugely cynical of flag-flyers at a fairly young age. They even had all sorts of hideous red white and blue fiberglass sculptures up and down the street. The flags flew all night- they would have needed a small army of Boy Scouts at every dealership to take them down and put them back up again. I never understood where the US flag thing came from, and even as a kid it left me with a profound sense of disgust. I'm not a patriotic person, but it just seemed to be crass commercialism in poor taste. It blows my mind that the number of flags outside a car dealership would have any sort of impact on whether or not people purchase cars.
posted by oneirodynia at 10:22 AM on May 25, 2007

Do they fly them at half staff when necessary?
posted by A189Nut at 4:30 PM on May 25, 2007

They do here, A189Nut. It's pretty creepy to see this flying at half staff for a month after a former President dies. And the commercials mention how they're "right under the flag" so I'd agree with the marketing ploy angle.
posted by kyleg at 11:02 PM on May 25, 2007

does anyone have an insight into the origins and development of the 'big flag = car lot' phenomenon?

I think it's as simple as (most) car dealers, and many non-car-dealers are the scum of the earth, and won't think twice before profaning a great symbol by displaying it when it suits their money-grubbing ends. As soon as one person did it, and it worked, they all did it. Don't know how much more explanation you need.

leading me to joke that if aliens landed in the US, they'd think cars were the dominant species

I think Mr. Ford Prefect would like to have a word with you.
posted by blenderfish at 5:51 PM on May 26, 2007

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