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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22 thoughts on “Deconstructing Burley”

  1. Gene @ BU says:

    You should mention this to Trek …

    Is this a marketing mis-step?

  2. Ted Johnson says:

    A non-cyclist friend of mine–yes I have those–revealed to me another level of genius in this photo. At first glance, the Travoy could be mistaken for another executive accoutrement: a golf bag.

    It didn’t even register to me, a non-golfer.

    There’s layer upon layer of marketing brilliance in this photo. It’s like I’m studying “The Ambassadors” for a graduate course in marketing. Next I’ll see an anamorphic skull in there.

  3. At first glance, I thought the Travoy looked a lot like a golf cart. Perhaps one more way to reach the cyclist yet to be.

  4. JamesBrett says:

    great post. and burley’s advertising here would work really well if people like me knew that was a bike trailer and not a set of golf clubs.

    1. Ted Johnson says:

      In Burley’s defense, that image was used in context where you’d know it was a trailer. And me being a non-golfing, Travoy fan, I knew what it was immediately. Mine is not the heart that they need to turn.

      Here is the original context.

  5. JamesBrett says:

    in that context, i indeed can tell it’s a bike trailer. even after i read it was a bike trailer i couldn’t figure out how it attached until i saw the picture you sent. but then again, i don’t know much about bike trailers. though i ought to be studying up, because we’re considering starting some kind of micro-finance program that might center around bikes and trailers here in tanzania.

  6. BluesCat says:

    Okay, okay, so … (grumble, mumble) … if we’re gonna attract the SUITS to biking, ya got a point, Ted.

    However, in the Power Handshake photo in your article, the hand coming from the left, and the cuff on the pinstriped shirt, look suspiciously FEMALE and so the “white guys” label looks funny to ME. So, did anybody else see this, or has the Ol’ Cat’s homophobia once more reared its ugly head?

    1. Ted Johnson says:

      I don’t think that this actually represents attracting “the suits” to cycling–anymore than having swimsuit models in tool ads represents selling tools to swimsuit models.

      What archetypes do (in art, literature, religion/mythology, and advertising) is evoke motivation and meaning that is felt rather than understood.

      The industry, as I’ve observed it, seems to cling rather uncreatively to a limited set of archetypes–which keeps cycling stuck in a cultural rut. This Burley photo jumped out at me precisely because it was not in that rut.

      I’m becoming really intrigued by this whole analysis of archetypes. Possibly to be explored in a future post. Look forward to pseudo-Jungian psychobabble.

  7. BluesCat says:

    I dunno, Ted. A guy in a tie doesn’t motivate me to do anything but ignore him (he’s probably trying to sell me something).

    But a pretty gal in a g-string bikini draped all over a bicycle … now THAT just might prod me into going into DEBT!

    I think there’s two entirely different things going on here with these particular stereotypes/archetypes.

  8. BluesCat says:

    On that same note, the gal in the white dress with the flowers in her basket looks a lot like Cote de Pablo of the television series NCIS, and she is one of my ONLY reasons for watching series television.

    I’m MUCH more interested in HER bike than I am in the Republican’s Burley Trailer!

  9. Ted Johnson says:

    That’s exactly who she is. I’ve never heard of her before.

  10. BluesCat says:


    Raven haired, 5’7″ Chilean-American actress who plays Israeli Mossad Agent Ziva David on NCIS.

    Keeping on topic, bike manufacturers like Electra and Public are missing a bet not hiring her to do ads riding their bicycles. In addition to that, if they set up a “Buy Our Bike for a Chance to Win a Bike Date With Cote de Pablo” contest … they’d have to contract with Trek and Giant in order to be able to satisfy the crush of orders.

    I had to scroll through 16 pages on FixieBuzz in order to find the full sized web picture, but it was worth it, Ted: I’ve got my computer wallpaper for quite a while now!

    Final note. Notice: she’s riding a BLUE bike. Woman’s got taste, too!

    1. Ted Johnson says:

      I don’t even know what NCIS is. But I find it fascinating that an American pop-culture ignoramus like me could stumble across a cycling archetype personified by a Chilean actress adored by a dirty old man like you.

  11. BluesCat says:


    Hey! I resent being called “old”!

    What I find extra fascinating is that you picked an image from a TV program which not only strikes a chord with me but also dovetails perfectly with this whole topic of marketing archetypes; as it pertains to television.

    NCIS stands for Naval Criminal Investigative Service; it is a real, federal agency whose “mission is to investigate and defeat criminal, terrorist, and foreign intelligence threats to the United States Navy and Marine Corps, wherever they operate, ashore or afloat.” The television show is based on a team of NCIS agents led by retired Marine Gunnery Sergeant Leroy Jethro Gibbs (played by Mark Harmon).

    As Gibbs and his team pursue the bad guys, the show incorporates the themes of literally every single successful TV drama series archetype since the dawn of television. You’ve got your “cop show” with an agent, Tony (Michael Weatherly) as a comic genius and former policemen. You’ve got your “spy show” with Ziva (Cote de Pablo) being the dark, sensuous Israeli spy who is never free from her shady, violent past. You’ve got your “medical drama” with David McCallum playing “Ducky” Mallard, a talkative, elderly British doctor who is the crew’s ME. You’ve got “the geek slant” with Tim (Sean Murray) as an out-of-his-element MIT grad. And you’ve got your “scientific, almost science fiction theater” with Pauley Perrette playing Abby, a hot, brilliant little Goth forensic scientist with tattoos in ALL the right places.

    You can sit down for one hour on Tuesday evenings, watch a well written and acted show, catch up on every single burning issue of the pop culture of the day, and not have to watch any of the other garbage on network TV!

    1. Ted Johnson says:

      Sorry. You’re not old. My mother in law likes that show too, and she’s only 75.

  12. BluesCat says:

    (snicker) But I bet she ain’t as dirty as I am! 😉

  13. John says:

    If you want ‘Normal people’ dressed in ‘Normal clothes’ doing ‘Normal jobs’ riding ‘Normal bikes, cargo bikes and trailers’ then go online to cycling images of the Netherlands.
    A few years ago I read an article by an American tourist who was connecting with a flight at Amsterdam and with some spare time on his hands went outside the airport to take a look around and have a coffee at a local coffee shop. He was amazed at the people going about their everyday lives on bikes. So much so that in the 45 mins he was having his coffee outside the coffee shop he took about 90 photos of the residents on their different types bikes.
    His aim was to return again to Amsterdam to spend more time there in the future and savour the flavour of their life style.

  14. microzen says:

    The executive’s power, to me, is eclipsed by the cheap Office Depot presswood desk he is sitting behind. Other than that, you’ve got a great analysis.

  15. another biker says:

    The hand on the left is female. The whole post seems hyperbolic to me.

  16. Chris says:

    I think I mtb with that dude.

  17. DOMINIC says:

    Ted, you have made a good point about advertising and how bicycles are perceived by other bicyclist. It’s the 80 percent of Americans that drive alone in their cars who could care less about bike riding. Trying to sell bikes to this group is not even possible until they make a choice to drive their cars less.

  18. Eric says:

    I’m pretty sure that sticker is an old Burley logo sticker, not a McCain/Palin sticker. I’ve got a few kicking around here in Holland. But Ted can dream…

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