... And a reaction from the demographic
by Michael Smith
(Originally posted to ebikes, the New York cyclists' Internet mailing list.)
Ever since Richard Rosenthal posted his picaresque tale of manufacturing consent at DOT, I've been looking at the Bike Month ads every chance I get. They're really very strange, when you think about it.
The cyclist apparently is not (as I first thought) the cartoon character Doug, but a different one called, I gather, Ziggy. Of course the fact that he's a cartoon character (rather than a real person) robs the thing of immediacy and concreteness. Message: "to cycle" is a defective verb, appearing only in the subjunctive mood.
I don't know whether Ziggy is supposed to be a child or not in his own setting, but as an image he's strongly paidomorphic: big head, soft features, realized in a childlike drawing style. Message: cycling is childish.
He's wearing a very conspicuous helmet and (oddly) very conspicuous cycling gloves. Message (of course): cycling is unsafe. Possible subsidiary message: Ziggy is wearing protection so it's OK to hit him.
Ziggy appears to be dressed for a recreational ride; he certainly isn't on his way to work. Message: cycling isn't a thing you'd do because it's useful -- it's just a leisure activity, a hobby.
Over and above Ziggy's weekend garb, you know he isn't going to work because he has a dog in a child seat on his rear rack. The dog is also wearing a helmet, which makes the helmet ridiculous of course; a double whammy. You have to wear the helmet because cycling is dangerous, but the helmet looks stupid -- would you wear something you'd just seen on a dog?
But back to this dog. What the hell does he imply? Cycling is for eccentrics? Hmmm. Well, if Ziggy had a child in a child seat it would imply that he was not only an adult but a parent, with a sex life and perhaps a spouse -- can't have that, certainly; it would suggest that normal people cycle. Is Ziggy one of those cartoon characters who have an animal companion rather than a human social setting? I've always thought that such characters tend to act as a humorous lighting rod for the normal sense of (or desire for?) isolation that most people feel on occasion, but to use such an icon of isolation in connection with cycling certainly reinforces the idea that cycling is something well outside the social mainstream.
This theme of cycling as connected with social isolation is strongly amplified by the very strange fact that although Ziggy is cycling down a decidedly urban street, with tall buildings etc., there is -- strikingly -- not another person, or animal, or vehicle in the scene. It's like those Twilight Zone episodes where there's only one survivor after some depopulating event. Usually this is some kind of misanthrope -- a bookworm, say, who escaped the nuclear holocaust because he was down in the fourth sub-level of stacks at the university library. So presumably the cyclist is some such weirdo, who by virtue of having withdrawn from the human race has missed out on whatever fate the rest of humanity has met (alien invasion, poisonous comet gas, Garth Brooks concert, etc.)
And finally -- this is the icing on the cake -- Ziggy is riding in a very plainly marked BIKE LANE. Even with all his protective apparatus, and without any other traffic on the street, he must remain in the cyclists' ghetto. Of course this completely undercuts anything positive there might have been in the pious motto (Cyclists Pedestrians Drivers Together), since a bike lane is all about the opposite of togetherness, namely segregation.
A rich image, obviously. There are a few elements that puzzle me: Ziggy appears to be riding a mountain bike with shocks on the front -- is this telling us something? If so, what? Or did they just want to avoid showing a sleeker image that might run the risk of making cycling appear cool? Ziggy's bike also has panniers in addition to the child seat -- and of course panniers are the kiss of death as far as coolness is concerned. I know because I ride a mountain bike with panniers too, and I see all those pitying glances I get from the gaudy buy-cyclists in Central Park. (Unlike Ziggy, however, I don't have shocks, which certainly puts me in a level lower even than Ziggy's in the fourteenth circle of Uncoolness Hell.)
Ziggy isn't wearing Lycra -- too sexy -- but he does appear to have shaved his legs. Unless as a desexed perennial child he doesn't in fact have any body hair, which is probably the real explanation.
The ad I saw this morning in the subway said (if memory serves) "PEDestrian -- bicycle PEDal -- gas PEDal -- we all come from the same root." Rolling On The Floor Laughing, as they say on AOL. I wanted to write "What about PEDophile?" on it but restrained myself (and yes, that does in fact come from a different root). Really a grabber, isn't it? I find the etymology of words a fascinating topic personally but I think it's safe to say that the general public considers it a snooze-o-tropic par excellence.
Anyway, what with one thing and another, I think it's pretty obvious that this campaign, if it has any effect at all, will do more harm than good. With friends like these, who needs enemies? I can't wait for Bike Month to be over, so the DOT can stop trying to save me from drowning by dropping a log on my head.
Oh, by the way, a quick note to all the sophomores out there who are already looking up how to spell "conspiracy theory" (hint: it's two words). None of the above implies that the designers of the campaign consciously had any of this stuff in mind. It's Art, after all, though Art of a very low-grade kind, and in Art, as we all know, the unconscious speaks to the unconscious, while the snapping Cerberus of conscious censorship is asleep.