Laura Bliss is CityLab’s West Coast bureau chief. She also writes MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Sierra, GOOD, Los Angeles, and elsewhere, including in the book The Future of Transportation.
The company promoted its TV show The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel with a day of throwback 1959-style prices in Los Angeles. What could go wrong?
On Thursday, Amazon Studios surprised L.A. with a day of throwback bargains. As part of its Emmy campaign for the period dramedy The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, the production arm of the e-commerce giant subsidized 1950s prices at classic Hollywood standbys, including 99-cent pastrami sandwiches at Canter’s Deli and $40 rooms at the Sportsmen’s Lodge.
By many measures, the day was a success. Hordes of shoppers lined up for the promotions, and social media channels were ablaze with appreciative fans. “1959 prices? You don’t say! ” exclaimed a 25-cent cupcake fan on Twitter. “Eating a 45 cent cheeseburger on the Ms. Maisel promo day to take back what the boomers took from me,” wrote another satisfied diner. Many deals sold out by evening.
But the one that got the most attention was a commodity near and dear to Angelenos: gas, which was going for 30 cent a gallon at one Santa Monica Chevron station. Drivers immediately descended on the cheap fuel once the promotion began, snarling Cloverfield Boulevard and the nearest I-10 freeway exits and turning the ‘50s-style promotion into a ‘70s-style gas line.
By late morning, the Santa Monica police department had to step in to direct traffic, and by early afternoon, congestion became so severe that first responders would have struggled to pass in the event of an emergency. Police decided to shut the deal down early, disappointing legions of tank-fillers. The show’s Twitter account was light-heartedly apologetic: “When we brought LA prices from 1959, we didn't know they would come with Manhattan traffic. Oy!”
Yet “Maisel Day,” as this shrewd bit of guerrilla marketing was called, had its ironies. Reimbursing businesses for these steep discounts required the deep pockets of Amazon, a nearly $1 trillion company that has faced much criticism for the wages and conditions it offers workers in its fulfillment centers. “Honestly shocked Amazon didn’t attempt to pay their workers $1/hr today under the auspices of it being ‘Maisel Day,’” comic and writer Megan Beth Koester tweeted. Others expressed more general discomfort with deal-hunters pining for the golden days of 1950s America, an era also remembered for repressive social expectations and lack of equal rights than .
And then there was that Chevron promotion, pumping gasoline at prices so low that folks might have brought their lawn mowers if the traffic had let up. This, despite the fact that we’re coming off the hottest month ever recorded on Earth and California officials are struggling mightily to curtail greenhouse gas emissions from personal cars in the face of climate change. Just this week, state air quality regulators released a report showing that California’s overall emissions dropped by 1 percent in 2017, thanks to the continued adoption of renewable energy. But tailpipe emissions are still rising, faster even than the rate of population growth. Without major changes to the way its denizens move around, the Golden State’s big climate targets will be out of reach.
As it is, California cities are pouring billions into transit services, and electric car sales are taking off. But the state’s sprawling urban development patterns and economic inequities make it hard to shake its relationship with internal combustion—a love affair that bloomed in the suburban buildout of the 1950s. Now, leaders in Los Angeles are considering methods that use financial incentives to push commuters away from driving. Recently adopted by New York City, congestion pricing schemes that charge drivers for entering key corridors at rush hour are increasingly viewed as the best option that growing cities have to respond to unmitigated car use.
When Amazon turned L.A.’s reliance on fossil fuel into a traffic-tangling marketing stunt, Maisel Day became a gloomy metaphor for the challenge that many sprawled-out cities are facing: Fighting climate change will require seismic shifts in the economy, the built environment, and our personal behavior. There will be no going back to the familiar patterns of the past.
By the way, the rebuke here lies not on drivers. While Maisel Day targeted Emmy voters, Amazon’s 30-cent gas probably helped a few Californians save a few bucks on a day that they really needed it. And if they felt a bit nostalgic for the time before global warming entered the public discourse, and set their neighbors’ houses on fire every year, well, who doesn’t? (It might also be worth noting that, thanks to the enormous subsidies gifted to the fossil fuel industry, 1959 never really ended when it comes to gas prices in America: 30 cents a gallon is about $2.60 in 2019 dollars.)
Instead, it’s Amazon that needs better ideas for practicing revisionist history. Fortunately there are many. Next time, maybe the company can toss a few of its billions into modern efforts to rebuild L.A.’s once-expansive “Red Car” network of electric streetcars. It, too, was around in the late 1950s, if barely. Sounds marvelous to me.