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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

ESSAY: Hearts Break When Ford Runs Off With Volvo




It's as if your trusty Uncle Joe -- the one who wears that hat all the time and spends most of Christmas Day explaining everyone's optimal freeway route home - up and ran off with a Swedish model.


Ford and Volvo. How long has this been going on?


Merger mania, they keep calling it in the various business sections, as if it were an event to be hawked by some motor-mouthed deejay - an appliance sale, a monster truck derby. Never mind that the definition of mania is "a wild or violent mental disorder," which may not be the best way to describe a corporate transaction (the process of which is, for lay folk, anyway, about as wild and violent as drying paint).


The point of the hyperbole is that in the last year, a bunch of big companies have merged with a bunch of other big companies.


Exxon with Mobil, MCI with WorldCom, Daimler-Benz with Chrysler, McDonnell Douglas with Boeing, and just last week a double whammy: Ford proposing to buy a big chunk of Volvo and Yahoo agreeing to buy GeoCities.


These intra-faith marriages are economically notable because they (a) often create multi-jillion-dollar corporations the likes of which the world has never seen and (b) invariably result in layoffs.


For stockholders, there's rejoicing; for employees, the familiar rustle of the classifieds. But for consumers, analysts generally offer only vague promises of "more choices," which seem contradictory to the basic premise of a merger, or they say there'll be "no effect at all."


A business mania is set loose in the land with no effect at all on the consumer. Anybody mention that to advertising and promotions staffs?


You know, the ones that sweat blood and hemorrhage money as they conjure the campaign, the gimmick, the jingle that will set their products apart, the tag line that will become - with luck - part of the cultural fabric.


And what about the rest of us, clinging to what little stability we have in this shifting, shiftless world? Makes you feel kind of stupid, if you've formed any kind of brand affinity, to be told that well, uh, it doesn't really matter if your brand and its competitor, its evil rival, have not only called a truce, but also set up housekeeping together.


As Americans, we believe in competition; we believe that consumption is an art, that choosy mothers choose Jiff, that we drink Dr Pepper and we're proud, that two out of three dentists surveyed recommend Trident to their patients who chew gum. But according to these smarty-pants business analysts, consumers would experience no change if Crest and Colgate, Nike and Adidas, Coke and Pepsi became one.


There's been so much backsliding as it is. Look at the petroleum industry. When I was growing up in Maryland, we got our gas from Citgo. This was back in the olden times, when a gas station consisted of a couple of gas pumps, a tire rack, a soda machine and an attendant or two who actually knew something about cars. Citgo was right near our house. Citgo offered the best promotional stuff - Hot Wheels cars, Peter Max beach towels (oh, why did I not save these?), stunning Baltimore Colts highball glasses (or these?), Green Stamps. The Citgo guys let us kids play with the air hose. Sometimes. The other brands - the Sinclairs, the Shells, the Sunocos - we had no truck with them. We were a Citgo family; to this day, the orange triangle is burned into my brain.


Those logos, the jingles, were marks of allegiances for those who grew up in the great American experiment of suburbia. Our houses all looked the same, as did many of our parents, so there had to be some form of tribal definition.


And the children were merely the tail end of the consume-or-be-consumed food chain. If manufacturers made it clear that although they were determined to provide housewives with merchandise of convenience - TV dinners, electric dryers, Tang - these items came with a whole new Weltanschauung. It now fell to these women, the mommies, the wives, the post-industrialist gatherers, to obtain for their families only the best, the tastiest, the shiniest, the most new and improved.


Consuming became an occupation, and, so, what was consumed became a personal statement. Peanut butter, margarine, laundry detergent, breakfast cereal - these were the boundaries of the new frontier. Were you an Oreo family or a Hydrox? A Hershey's or a Nestle's? Your shopping habits became as important as your ethnic background. Sears or Montgomery Ward? The A&P or Giant?


Automobiles, the No. 1 import of Daddyland, were the most powerful juju. In Middle America, one bought American or risked open censure at the block parties. Beyond that, everyone tended to have an automotive legacy - the familial preference for Ford or Dodge or Chevrolet was intrinsic to the clan. Your brands were your talismans, your colors. What you owned identified you, mirrored something of who you were. A Ford guy was not a Volvo guy, and that was all there was to it.


Divisive? Perhaps, but American. We are a nation of teams - colonists vs. the redcoats, the Union vs. the Confederacy, Democrats vs. Republicans, New York Yankee fans vs. the rest of the world.


But now we live in a time of great blurring. Companies no longer content to live as skirmishing city-states are behaving like modern-day Romans or Celts - raiding, dealing and marrying themselves into larger and larger empires. Volvo would be just one more member of Ford's polygamous family, which includes Jaguar, Aston Martin and one-third of Mazda.


The "if you can't lick 'em, buy 'em" philosophy may work on the spreadsheets, but it comes at a higher cost than the lawyers fees. Brand identification, which seems a small and superficial thing, has been a linchpin of this economy for a couple hundred years.


And beyond the numbers is the psychology of the thing.


From sports teams to regional cuisine, nothing seems content to stay in the city of its origin anymore. Standing at Harbor Place in Baltimore, a city that once had only its personality to offset its famous stench of a billion polecats, I found myself surrounded by the familiar - California Pizza Kitchen, Hard Rock Cafe, the Cheesecake Factory. I could have been in Los Angeles. I could have been in Chicago.


The corporate age, as much as the information age, has made the world a smaller place, which has many benefits. No one will mourn the loss of prejudice and ignorance that so often accompanies regionalism.


But even a united people need differences by which they identify themselves, and if the benign allegiances - to a certain kind of car, a certain local industry leader, a certain hamburger chain - disappear, what will step in to fill the void?


Mary McNamara is a staff writer of the Los Angeles Times, to which she contributed this article.