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The Economics of Used Cars

The Economics of Used Cars

The human cost of selling used cars.

I've found myself with a lot more free time and have been filling that time with catching up on a lot of my reading and watchlists. Recently I've come across a 2004 documentary called Slasher, and no it's not a true crime style documentary about a serial killer, its about a used car salesman. A used car salesman who has become so dedicated to selling old cars that he's created a sort of celebrity persona around it called the Slasher.

It doesn't appear to be a very well known film, its been on youtube for a few years and has less than 20,000 views, and I've had a hard time finding information about the film. I only knew it came out in 2004 and John Landis was involved in some capacity because the uploader gave that information out. Looking it up I found a sparse IMDB entry with the above promotional poster.

Quote:
A documentary on a stereotypically shady used car salesman, one who convinces customers to buy vehicles that others have deemed unfit for sale.

IMDB synopsis

I'm a little surprised to see them market it as a comedy as its one of the most depressing and exhausting films I've seen in awhile. I get why they did it, John Landis is known for two things, that helicopter crash which killed two children, and hit comedies like The Blues Brothers "watch a man sell work himself into exhaustion tricking poor people into buying old clunkers" probably didn't focus test very well, even if it is more accurate.

There are moments when the people being filmed make a few wisecracks and some shop-floor banter, but the closest equivalent in comedic tone I can think of is if The Office were a real documentary at a real company and workforce and not a scripted comedy pretending to be a documentary.

So I'm not surprised its obscure, but I think that's a shame as while it is really horrible and exhausting to watch, its one of the best examples of just how pernicious and destructive capitalist economics is on essentially everyone who takes part in it. Over its 85 minute runtime we see how market economics effects and shapes the Slasher and his team of celebrity (celebrity as in diva attitudes) salesmen, the regular staff at the lots, the lot owner and the customer base.

I don't think its a surprise to anyone that the world of used car sales is built on trickery, manipulation and deceit, but the lengths and the sophistication the Slasher and his team go to, in order to pull off a successful 3-day sale, the Slasher and his team draw up a battle plan that's based on surprisingly sophisticated market research, study of the local economy and psychology.

Quote:
"The American consumer, if they drive by a pile of horseshit for a million dollars, and they drive past it for two weeks and one day they drive by and there's a sign for a dollar, they'll buy the shit."

The Slasher is a celebrity in the world of used cars in the United States, he does radio adverts, press interviews and makes his money flying around the US holding big publicised sales for used car sellers. His success revolves around a gimmick, he's the Slasher because he slashes prices, and he has a fake plastic chainsaw which he uses to "slash" prices and paperwork. He brings a team of other highly dedicated sellers with him and he appears to have been consumed entirely by his work personality. I've seen this film several times and I don't know the Slasher's real name is, nor can I remember if he ever says it on screen or not. The IMDB profile tells me its Michael Bennett, but aside from two very brief segments he acts like the Slasher throughout, even when he's chatting with his team or resting up in a motel after work, he's always speaking in a rapid fire "Hi, how are you, isn't it a great day?" manner, and he's constantly moving and twitching like he does when he's pounding the tarmac of the lot. In order to make this life of selling overpriced and borderline undriveable cars to people with very poor credit he seems to have sacrificed his own identity. At the end of the film he's sitting in a car and is having a mental breakdown, he's choking up and lamenting his life and just wishes he could be normal. He's tired, he doesn't want to be the Slasher but he can't stop, he just can't be normal it's too late he has to provide for his family and he's trapped himself in this life.

The sale where we watch the Slasher and his co-workers who sort of count as his friends do their magic is in Memphis Tennessee. The film was recorded in 2004 and this is important Memphis isn't doing very well and this was before the 2008 financial crash and recession. Looking back its easy to fall into monolithic model of global capitalism, it has a boom period and then it has a bust period. But this is misleading, its booming and busting all the time everywhere, the traditional economy of Memphis has collapsed and poverty rates have increased. I don't want to think how bad Memphis and places like it were hit when 08 happened on top of their already crumbling economies.

We see a lot of this in the film, in addition to the Slasher persona, the Slasher and his team have another gimmick to draw in the crowds, an $88 car sale. They will sell some (it looks about one car per day of sale) for $88. This is important because several segments show the team going about getting the word out by essentially just going into the community and putting up signs and stickers but also just talking to people whenever they have the opportunity, cashiers at shops, staff at drive throughs, people on the street. And what's get horrible about this whole thing is it becomes very obvious that many of the people they're talking to are very poor, because they're just being polite to the man whose talking to them nicely, until the sales people let them know there will be cars for sale for as low as $88. In several cases you can see the people stop for a second and seriously consider it now, because they now can afford a car potentially if its for $88.

The kicker is that in addition to there only being about 1 car per day going for that price, the rest of the cars for sale despite "slashing" are not in very good condition, still very expensive, and since they're expecting mostly poor people to turn out for this sale they're are prepared with multiple different down payment and credit plans, many of which seem (I'm not an expert on finances) to be essentially rip offs, like paying in instalments with add-ons like insurance (including one sale where life insurance appears to be added to the package) so when its all calculated add up to a much higher cost than the price agreed upon. Oh, and the prices written on the windshields are mostly made up and inflated specifically so the sales people can drop down the price in order to entice a sale.

They also use this technique which I didn't fully understand but seemed effective where by asking what appear to be fairly harmless questions about their customers while waiting for the manager or the Slasher they were able to profile their customers based on how much they can afford and how likely they are to default, which seemed to be very effective. People believed to have very little money and extremely poor credit were given a badge of a different colour to those believed to have a higher price range. It seemed to work too based on the footage of them processing sales paperwork.

Oh and those $88 cars were the oldest and in most need of repair models on the lot that still looked presentable. The Slasher even says as the first $88 car sold drives off the lot

"That's what you get for $88, if it makes out of the driveway you've got yourself a deal."

And later on a segment shows that $88 car essentially completely broken down, the engine won't start, its leaking fuel and the owner says she was told she'd be better off scrapping it. The other cars are in better conditions but they're still old and in poor shape and still being hocked at inflated prices with very predatory payment plans. But what's really sinister about this is that it works a lot more than you'd expect, a lot of people get really into the festivities of the sale, and when that $88 car makes it home the neighbours are really impressed and many of them show up the next day. Its really hard to watch these people's hopes and dreams being exploited by a group that has sat back and planned to exploit them to the full with the support of an industry that has had decades of experience with these tricks on their side. That first $88 car was a present from two parents for their daughter who was going to college. Looking at the neighbourhood they live in it seems likely that this was the only car they could ever afford and they bought it purely to provide for their daughter. It's sickening that their hope and wish to do a nice thing for someone they care about is being used as fodder for a predatory business spectacle. The team are even able to talk their way into a sale against customers who have experience with cars and can see the obvious problems with the car on offer, that's how well they've done their research into their craft.

The two least sympathetic people in the doc are the "Mercenary" the Slasher's main collaborator and the lot owner who hired them in the first place. The Mercenary (again I don't remember his name and the IMDB entry didn't list it) is essentially the Slasher without the charisma. Which bear in mind the Slasher is a man who runs up and down a used car lot in a suit and a plastic battery operated toy chainsaw. He's even more macho and "no nonsense", who knows all the tricks and makes no bones about the scummy side of the business, he's more than happy to spend several hours essentially wearing down a customer to close a deal. He's also the one who spends most of his time in the office working out payment the plans, the Slasher doesn't really handle the paperwork he just runs up to a customer and haggles with them, and if they agree on a price he shakes their hand, lets them play with his chainsaw, wishes them a great day and then runs off after another customer. Its the Merc who we see bad mouthing the customers for giving him a hard time for the most part, even though he knows full well most of the cars are junk and he's saddling vulnerable people with a lot of debt and financial obligations.

The Slasher and his team are manipulative but they're doing it for the lot owner who has final say on the sales going through. At the start of the doc he says he hired the Slasher to host this sale to free up lot space since he's given up on ever selling the cars that will be for sale since they've been there for so long. Sound bites by him make it clear he knows full well the sale will mostly draw in the poor and desperate, and that he's selling them junk that can just barely be considered road worthy at extortionate prices. But even with him we see some of the damage of capitalist economics. His business doesn't look to healthy, later segments suggest that this is less about getting some space for better inventory and more a way to stay in business. And well this is only a 3-day sale in a city that is going through some very hard times, according to the doc the biggest employer is Fedex which operates mainly out of the airport. Most of the shots of the city show it to be in decline and well many of the people who turn out to the lot leave as soon as that days $88 car is sold. There's a lot of tension between him and the Slasher and his team as the sales haven't been very strong, they were expecting at least 60 cars to be sold over the 3 days and days 1 and 2 were disappointments and day 3 has the Slasher so desperate to bring in customers he runs into the busy road while ranting on his microphone. The last segments of the sale end on a sort of positive note with the number of sales picking up but its unclear to me if they made it to the agreed upon number, which if they did they'd receive a bonus.

But even if they did make the target I don't think he has a healthy business base anymore. Most of these people were lured into the lot by what was essentially the promise of a free car, the cars themselves are old and in bad condition, the Slasher and his team pulled out all the stops and spent 3 days of hard work (the Slasher is physically and emotionally exhausted) to drum up some business and they're leaving.

On IMDB there's a review of this film by user denves2003 who claims to be from that area.

Quote:
I used to live 50 miles north of Memphis so I know where their dealership is. Having gone through a six-month stint as a car salesmen (while between jobs) a long time ago I know a few things about the games the sales-people AND the customers play. Yes, salesmen lie through their teeth ("I have to talk to the sales manager"; "we're not making a thing on this deal"; "we're giving you {fill in the blanks} for your car which is more than it's worth", etc.).

But customers also lie (I'll be back),and I've seen many who will come in just to jack a salesmen around. Real time-killers.

But on to the movie. The "Slasher" is the typical used car salesman with the hyped up attitude and proclaiming to cut prices to the bone. It was still interesting and worth everyone's time to watch.

I thought the gals hired to bring in the customers was a typical tactic and it probably worked, esp. with the blond.

This review was in February 2005, so I guess the lot survived until then at least, but I still get a strong sense of a business that's now been made obsolete by much more powerful market trends essentially just marking time. Even the lot owner is aware that the economy in Memphis is bad and that he has fallen, many of his segments involve tales of his glory days, he sold Cadillacs to Elvis and was frequently invited to parties at Graceland. Now he has to rely on a man running around with a plastic chainsaw to talk people into buying cars he couldn't be bothered to pay to have chewing gum removed from the seats.

I think ultimately the message of Slasher is that even the supposedly simple act of buying a commodity takes an extreme emotional and physical toll on everyone in the process. Its easy to vilify the salesmen but they're essentially trapped in these roles they've worked in for so long. I don't like the Slasher as a person he has a charm to him and he clearly dedicates himself to the tasks he has to do, and he does seem to genuinely care about his family and hate being away from them, but that doesn't change that he's built a career and identity out of tricking and hurting people. They aren't soldiers or police officers, or selling weapons but they can still cause a lot of damage, having to default on a payment can tank credit completely, buying a car that breaks down almost immediately when you're depending upon it can have all sorts of consequences. But when he was breaking down in the car and trying to come to terms with his life I had to pause the video several times because it was that uncomfortable to watch, and it is somewhat relatable. Every job I've ever had has required me to do things and behave in ways I am not comfortable doing, and I don't think this is unique or rare, its just that the Slasher is an extreme case.

Posted By

Reddebrek
May 19 2020 18:49

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  • The American consumer, if they drive by a pile of horseshit for a million dollars, and they drive past it for two weeks and one day they drive by and there's a sign for a dollar, they'll buy the shit

    Car salesman

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Comments

Reddebrek
May 19 2020 18:51
Spikymike
May 21 2020 10:19

An instructive piece and a good write up but too good as it made me too ill to actually watch the film even though I'v had more time on my hands during our 'lockdown'.
Edit; Struck me that in many parts of the USA the need for even the poorest workers then (and now?) to own a car was even more essential than here in the UK.

zugzwang
May 21 2020 13:19
Spikymike wrote:
An instructive piece and a good write up but too good as it made me too ill to actually watch the film even though I'v had more time on my hands during our 'lockdown'.
Edit; Struck me that in many parts of the USA the need for even the poorest workers then (and now?) to own a car was even more essential than here in the UK.

Mostly everyone not living in major cities, where they can rely on public transportation or things being close enough together, drives

Reddebrek
May 25 2020 04:42
Spikymike wrote:
An instructive piece and a good write up but too good as it made me too ill to actually watch the film even though I'v had more time on my hands during our 'lockdown'.
Edit; Struck me that in many parts of the USA the need for even the poorest workers then (and now?) to own a car was even more essential than here in the UK.

Thank you, I do recommend watching it, if only to comprehend how even a tertiary industry like car selling has so much institutional power built behind it. I tried to explain it above, but I'm not doing it justice. I think its a good thing it was on youtube, it meant I could pause it when it got heavy and take a break, I had to do this several times when I first watched it.

I found out about this film because a podcast I was listening too briefly mentioned it as something they had watched and gave instructions on how to find it.