Born to be wild

Today somebody explained to me the marketing strategy behind Harley Davidson custom motorcycles, or “Choppers” as they are affectionately called. This was information relayed to my friend from someone who works in Harley’s marketing department. It seems that these aggressive looking vehicles, most often associated with the Hells Angels and Peter Fonda driving down the highway in the 1969 film “Easy Rider”, are marketed very specifically.

According to the marketing guy from Harley, the target customer is a somewhat older guy, often bearded and almost always somewhat overweight, who has a good high paying job. These guys like to dress up aggressively in leather outfits on weekends, get on their choppers and roar through the countryside, making lots of noise, looking agressive and generally disturbing the peace of one neighborhood after another.

Which is not illegal. And that is precisely the point. Apparently the police know the score, and leave these guys alone. The cops see the Harleys and realize that it’s all fake. Even if the procession looks, to the untrained eye, like a gang of marauding criminals, it’s actually just a kind of acting out by respectable guys with good jobs who pay taxes.

To me, there are two remarkable things going on here. One is that Harley Davidson builds an entire brand around this interesting variety of collective theatre. The is that their marketing people would be perfectly happy to lift the veil off the fantasy. Clearly they are confident that their target customer will keep buying.

I guess this makes sense. Makers of sports shoes don’t really expect their customers to believe themselves to be the equal of Tiger Woods or Michael Jordan – however much those icons of acheivement are used in product marketing. Knowing that you will never sink an eagle like Tiger or dunk like Jordan clearly doesn’t stop you from buying the shoe.

Similarly, it might not be so bad to know that you are buying that Harley merely to play out a ritual of pretending to be “Captain America” cruising to New Orleans in time for Mardi Gras on a chopper loaded with drug money, while “Born to be Wild” plays on the soundtrack. Honestly, getting to play-act the part of countercultural outlaw is a lot better than actually being “Captain America” in “Easy Rider” – things didn’t really work out too well for him.

One Response to “Born to be wild”

  1. ThePig says:

    This reminds me of a funny story. I live in the Santa Monica mountains near Malibu, where Harley riders thrive. Even though I would never ride a motorcycle and am a stereotypical nerd, I worked up the courage to put on a pair of black jeans and a black t-shirt and went into the Sagebrush Cantina in Calabasas on a Sunday afternoon. There must have been over 300 Harley choppers parked there. I ordered a beer and sat outside. Being a bar in the Valley, there were a lot of skanky looking porn stars there. And a lot of mean looking dudes. I would have expected the juke box to be blaring Free Bird and Born to Be Wild. Instead I heard the likes of RUN DMC, Justin Timberlake, and Madonna. I couldn’t stop laughing.

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