Grace Jones and Citroën CX are Pure 1980s Zeitgeist
Not many advertisement campaigns for automobiles have been packed with that level of both style and symbolism
Every now and then, automotive advertising creates a campaign that gives car enthusiasts a lot to discuss. Volkswagen made the Beetle stand out in North America in the 1950s using clever print ads, Fiat entered the Brazilian market helped by culture-oriented TV videos, Skoda used self-deprecation to bounce back from difficult times…
Each automaker is established with a unique group of values and applies them on its products as much as possible. Such attitude grants character to each car; makes it unique and, therefore, suitable to a specific buyer type. The problem is that such elaborate images are rarely entirely understood; most people buy cars merely for their rational features.
Advertising plays a key role in this context because it attempts to bring theory and practice together: print, video and online pieces are expected to “explain” to people why that specific car model has everything to become irresistible to them. Some of them end being irresistible themselves and memorable even long after the car’s production ended.
That’s the Trouble
Decades ago, Citroën was considered quirky, so to say. That was positive when it comes to technology because of innovative projects like the hydropneumatic suspension. Design, however, became a tricky issue because the fastback style, the single-spoke steering wheel, and covered rear wheels were considered just too much for many customers.
Unfortunately, investing in unique technology and wrapping it with designs of questionable taste was not a profitable strategy: the CX was released in 1974, the same year its maker went bankrupt and shortly before Peugeot’s takeover. Such characteristics have made many enthusiasts consider the CX the last real Citroën produced around the world.
The good part is that the CX was quite successful. Designed by Robert Opron, it built on the DS’s famous silhouette, used much of the SM’s technology, and added an aerodynamic flair: the smooth sheetmetal, the Kammback design, and wind tunnel tests helped it reach a 0.36 drag coefficient — the model was named after the magnitude’s symbol.
I’ve Seen that Face Before
Citroën’s troubled situation of the time affected the CX’s market performance. The original rotary engine was scrapped at the last minute, there was internal competition from two models in the newly founded PSA, some early units did not have power steering, right-hand drive only arrived a year later, and the car did not have worldwide distribution.
Nevertheless, Citroën’s famous suspension granted raving reviews from press and public, the dashboard design allowed the driver to reach all controls with hands on the steering wheel, and the transverse engine layout helped increase internal space. The model was awarded European Car of the Year in 1975 and had 132,000 units produced in 1978.
Despite the gradual improvements performed, the initial momentum was lost after some years. PSA had many other cars on which to work and little money to do it, so the CX got decreasing attention. Things would only change in 1985 with its Series 2: a midlife facelift that would be quite ordinary if it had gotten any other advertising campaign.
Don’t Mess with the Messer
Grace Jones was living the best phase of her career. The 1980s marked a shift from initial disco albums to the new age genre and, consequently, the release of Nightclubbing. That album is not only widely considered her best studio one but also was a crucial step to establish the image she created to herself, which led her to a multi-dimensional career.
While people were already getting used to see dominant women in the media, Jones went much further: live shows praised by the LGBTQ+ public, personal style filled with androgynous elements, and a strong overall stance enhanced by her manners, height (1.79 m), and even facial expressions. It is impossible to think of her with indifference.
Such image was built together with photographer Jean-Paul Goude, who was Jones’s partner. Their relationship had a muse-artist touch which led them to create remarkable works such as the collage for the Slave to the Rhythm album cover. While Goude’s work strove to enhance Jones’s natural traits, it has also been considered exploitative.
I’m Not Perfect (But I’m Perfect for You)
Citroën needed to attract attention to the facelifted CX and decided to go big: Grace Jones was chosen to lend her extravagant image to the car’s advertising campaign. The German print pieces above depict the car’s technical upgrades in a casual and engaging way, featuring a colorful collage that makes us think of Andy Warhol and Campbell’s soup.
French ads such as this article’s second picture and this one went further and linked the car to the artist’s iconic features: the car dashes away from Jones’s mouth as in one of her musical yells on one and is represented on the other by adapting Jones’s square-cut hairdo to represent the CX’s silhouette — Goude’s artistic style appeared once again.
Jones quickly became the face of Citroën; she enhanced the company’s quirky and subversive image. Considering that it had just gone bankrupt and needed to trade hands to save itself, that pop touch gave it a breath of what it used to be. That was probably the reason why the automaker did not stop at the print ads. Oh, it clearly did not stop there.
Slave to the Rhythm
A mechanical Grace Jones head. Synthesizer music on the background. A new CX leaves through the mouth and rushes through a desert. The camera moves to show another Grace Jones on the driver’s seat. The real one, this time. And to prove how real, she sings. Not a verse, not a word. A yell. And while yelling, she drives back inside the head.
Crazy? Yes. Mysterious? That too. Weird? Sure. But also beautiful? Definitely. Beautiful not in a rational, purposeful, structured way; beautiful in an artistic, almost cathartic way; beautiful in its rawest form. While that video expresses many signature elements of Jones’s image, it does so in a way which perfectly integrated the restyled Citroën CX.
As a result, the campaign did a wonderful job of attracting people’s attention and the car kept up with the hype by showing its refreshed design and, above all, its upgraded technologies: besides anti-lock braking, electronic injection, and automatic transmission, the GTi Turbo trim gave it an unexpected sporty touch with a 220-kph top speed.
The Citroën CX eventually succumbed to high maintenance costs and quality issues. Over 1.1 million units were sold up to 1991, when it was fully replaced by the XM. Nevertheless, it inspired several other cars to pursue aerodynamics and was immortalized by being associated to a pop icon of its time. Share your opinions using the comment button!