Deconstructing Burley

I was on the Burley Website recently while poaching images to use in this newsletter.

When I found this guy.

High Power Executive with Burley Travoy
High Powered Executive with Burley Travoy

And I thought, I am such a dumb ass. I’m always wondering how to convince more people to take bikes seriously as transportation.

Is it the economic argument?

Is it the quality of life argument?

Is it the health argument?

Does Oprah need to command her minions to ride bikes?

But think about it. How many bike-related photos have you seen? Thousands, right? But hardly any like this.

Cycling photos tend to come only in three very broad categories:

Whimsical: Weirdos on bikes who just might be nomads, eccentrics, or outsiders living some dream–a dream that a mainstream person hopes to never have.

Square Wheels
With further research, I will fit into society. | Photo: Transport Blog

Whimsical can also be eye candy cycle chic photos–glamorous, thin women in colorful clothes, shopping for fresh kale on a summer day.

Sorry. You will never be me. | Photo: FixieBuzz

Macho: Mountain bikers flying down treacherous hills, hunchbacked roadies tearing up the countryside, or any other photo of a cyclist in adrenalin or competitive mode. Cycling is a sport, and you would suck at it.

Bike Racing
I will run you down, and your little dog too.   | Photo: Transport Blog

Object of Pity: People in developing countries using bikes because, pathetically, they can’t afford cars. Bikes are clearly a distant second choice for them. But what are you gonna do?

Goat on Bike
Poor fellow. At least the doomed goat won’t ever have to ride a bike again. | Photo: Weedom

Other objects of pity include: The DUI guy, and the homeless guy.

What these three categories of images invoke in the mind of your mainstream motorist is a blend of three thoughts: Undesirable, Unattainable, and Underdeveloped.

The photo of the executive with the Burly Travoy trailer is clearly in a new, fourth category for cycling photos that hasn’t captured much mind share. Yet it’s a time-honored advertising trope.

Show a groomed white guy in a necktie doing, buying, holding, or wearing a thing, and something in the American consumerist mind sees that thing and reflexively says, want!

Hell, you don’t even need to show the white guy or the necktie. How many times have you seen this bit of stock iconography?

Implied: White guys, neckties, wealth, success, and power
Cycling Executive
Forensic Exhibit A

And the folks at Burley aren’t dumb. This is no accident. This is a magisterial contrivance worthy of my awe and admiration. Nay, worthy of study and deconstruction.

First of all, there’s no damn bike anywhere in the photo to invoke the three assassins of consumer motivation: Undesirable, Unattainable, and Underdeveloped.   (Remember them from, like, four paragraphs ago?)

This fellow is focused. On the phone and on the computer at the same time. He’s in control, hardworking, and multitasking. Helmet hair? Maybe. The evidence has been cropped out–but not that managerial touch of gray around the temples.

And he’s on a laptop. You bet your butt butter that he takes his work home.

Cycling Executive
Forensic Exhibit B

That looks like a Dell computer too. No frivolous Mac for him–that might steal the focus from the Travoy.

And what’s that sticker on the laptop cover? Is that McCain-Palin 2008? I can’t quite make it out, but I’m damn sure it isn’t Bikes not Bombs, or any other non-profitable nonsense.

What about that awesome commuter mug? Stainless steel. Looks like it holds 32 ounces.

He’s been sipping on that thing, no doubt, since his commute at 5 AM.

Cycling Executive
Forensic Exhibit C

The composition of the whole image is off kilter. Seemingly a candid shot taken–perhaps jealously–through the office door. That’s right, you don’t disturb this hardworking executive. And you don’t stand outside of his corner office and gawk. You walk past like you mean business too. Then you aim your camera from hip level and snap.

Later you pull up this photo and admire this paragon of business. You could be as successful as him if only you could be more like him. If only you had what he has. And what’s that in the foreground?

Good God! It’s a bike trailer! Yes, a sexy businesslike bike trailer with a laptop case and a transit bag. You want that trailer. You barely pause to think that there’s an implicit lifestyle change that comes with the trailer. You’ve decided to become a cyclist without even realizing it.

Are you getting my point here?

With calculated subtlety, this image breaks the iconography of cycling as the province of eccentrics, jocks, and CARE Package recipients.

For months I’ve been wondering out loud what persuasion Americans would respond to, when I’ve known all along: Americans respond to diabolically clever marketing. The message is implicit, not explicit.

High Power Executive with Burley Travoy
Why indeed.

I like Burley. I like their trailers. They’re a smart company. It comes as no surprise to me that they would figure out this paradigm shift ahead of most of the cycling industry. It’s been hiding in plain sight.

It’s a cliche. It works. It’s a cliche because it works.

There are volumes of sociology that could be written about this iconography. Why is this archetype usually white, and a guy? Why is he wearing a tie? Why do consumers respond to this as a proxy image for wealth and power? I’m sure most readers will have gut responses to all of these questions.

My question is, Why hasn’t it been put in the service of cycling before?

Go get ’em, Hotshot.

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