As motorcycle riders we aspire to a life extraordinaire, one uniquely our own. But if we subscribe to a “brand” perhaps we naively wave goodbye to quaint notions of “freedom” and instead become assimilated into the collective. Resistance is then futile.
If you haven’t watched the short video “Live By It” on either YouTube or Vimeo, you should. Shot in gritty film noir black-and-white, it shows an ever-growing band of outlaw-styled motorcycle riders rolling along the highway under threatening clouds. The first five lines of the voiceover go like this:
“We believe in going our own way, no matter which way the rest of the world is going.
We believe in bucking the system that’s built to smash individuals like bugs on a windshield.
Some of us believe in the man upstairs. All of us believe in sticking it to the man down here.
We believe in the sky, and we don’t believe in the sunroof.
We believe in freedom …”
You get the idea. Depending on your point of view, it’s an inspirational paean, a nauseatingly arrogant rant, or just another cynical advertising ploy. Cynical, because we’re expected to ignore the irony that the “individuals” are all going the same way, in the same group, wearing similarly rebellious gear and riding the same brand of bike. Instead of “sticking it to the man,” they’ve bought his lifestyle—and his motorcycle. You can too. Just sign the financing agreement.
Such connections in marketing are nothing new. Advertisers have long sought to associate their products with aspirational lifestyles. But the motorcycle outlaw as aspirational?
Why not? In a video ad for the sporty Fiat Cinquecento Abarth, bad boy Charlie Sheen—prominently wearing a house-arrest ankle bracelet—roars around the inside of a palazzo in an Abarth, squealing and smoking the tires. And as Charlie climbs out of the car to join the party, a sexy babe sidles toward him. “What do I get for good behaviour?” asks Sheen. The message is not subtle. Bad boys get more sex, and the Abarth is what bad boys drive. But nothing says bad boy like a big, noisy motorcycle and the right duds.
The old joke goes that in discussing school clothes with her mother, a daughter blurts out, “But I don’t want to wear a uniform. I want to wear jeans and a T-shirt like everyone else …”
So it is with the motorcycle lifestyle. You ride the right bike, you wear the approved uniform—whether that uniform consists of engineer boots and chaps or Alpinestars and Arai—and you’ve got the lifestyle, be it sportrider or “biker.” Even better if everything is the right brand.
Of course, the ultimate objective of inviting consumers to take on a product-oriented lifestyle is to generate brand loyalty. “The man” hopes you’ll identity that brand with the lifestyle, which means you’ll buy it over and over again. It’s an essential feature of branding that numerous products are sold under the same brand, because the brand association sells the product. Motorcycle manufacturers know this: that’s why they offer T-shirts, watches, belt buckles, signature clothing and all the other “lifestyle accessories.” It’s become a cliché that more money can be made selling T-shirts than selling motorcycles.
Perhaps the concept most strongly associated with the biker lifestyle is freedom. But there’s no such thing in modern society. True freedom exists as a concept only: what we call freedom is just our own comfortable parking spot on the continuum of conformity. Some conform less than others—but adopting any lifestyle implies acceptance of conformity. And that means leaving freedom behind.
Back in “the day,” I used to ride my Honda 125 from my day job across downtown London to get to night school. My garb was a moss-green parka, plastic overpants, army surplus gauntlets and rubber boots. I stayed dry and warm, which was the objective. An aspirational lifestyle statement it wasn’t. Likewise, I’ve always been drawn to function over form: go before show; and chrome won’t get you home. The thought of being lumped into a “lifestyle” is anathema—though it isn’t always easy to avoid.
So I had always been attracted to the Ducati brand because it was “the little engine that could.” From the 125GP racer of 1956, the Imola-winning 750SS of 1972, Mike Hailwood’s epic comeback at the Isle of Man in 1978, and the breakthrough into World Superbike in the 1990s, Ducati was the underdog taking on the big boys. The designs were clever, innovative, minimalist—and different. They built motorcycles because it was in their blood, not to produce a better balance sheet. Ducati was the individual’s choice. Lifestyle? Moi?
Then came the Audi deal late last year. Perhaps Ducati would be better financed but left to its own devices, I hoped. Then, at a local Ducati dealer, I pick up a copy of a new glossy magazine, titled, rather obviously, Ducati. The word “lifestyle” is right on the cover, and “passion” appears five times in the first six pages. This is not looking good.
The mag features new models and racing successes, but prime space is devoted to logo-wear and Ducati-branded accessories, even babywear and—horrors—a Ducati fragrance. Everything in the magazine is “exclusive,” “exciting,” and comes from—wait for it—“passion.” Just like other freedom seekers, I was being invited to sell my soul and buy into a lifestyle. I think I’ll take my Laverda out for a spin.