What is the matter with this picture?
It is a full-page advertisement in national magazines, featuring a list of the top 10 cars in an ''initial quality'' survey of 1990 models. The survey involved more than 26,000 new-car buyers and concerned owner-reported problems during the first 90 days. Here is the list:
1. Lexus, Japan
2. Mercedes-Benz, Germany
3. Toyota, Japan
4. Infiniti, Japan
5. Buick, USA
6. Honda, Japan
7. Nissan, Japan
8. Acura, Japan
9. BMW, Germany
10. Mazda, Japan
This is, believe it or not, an advertisement for Buick. The big print says: ''Buick. The only American car-line to rank in the top 10 in quality. But then, quality has never been foreign to Buick.''
So it has come to this: an American corporation's boast is that it has been beaten by only four foreign competitors.
We have all seen something different at the end of many college football or basketball games. The winning players and their fans, each with one finger held aloft chant, ''We're No. 1!'' Such boasts may be mistaken, and the passion may be disproportionate to the achievement, but at least it is better than chanting, ''We're No. 5!''
A recent front-page story in The New York Times provided fresh, if redundant, reasons for not turning on your television. Various American economic interests are resorting to anti-Japanese commercials to sell their products.
''Imagine,'' intones a voice, intended to be ominous, ''a few years from now. It's December, and the whole family's going to see the big Christmas tree at Hirohito Center. Go on. Keep buying Japanese cars.'' The commercial concludes with two words printed in large letters on a black screen: ''Enough Already.''
Does that oblique reference to Rockefeller Center make you swell with nationalist indignation and want to hop into your (Heaven forfend!) Toyota and dash out to buy a Pontiac? It is supposed to. It has been run by the Pontiac dealers of the New York metropolitan area.
Is that the best way to sell American cars -- just change the subject? Talk not about transportation but real estate? (The Japanese have bought 51 percent of Rockefeller Center.) The promise of the ad is that red-blooded Americans should be driven bonkers with mortification by the fact that a chunk of Manhattan real estate could bear the name of a Japanese emperor rather than an American robber baron.
The premise is unattractive, but the commercial may be effective. During a recent month when the commercial was run, Pontiac sales in the metropolitan region were the same as in the same month one year ago, despite a steep decline in Pontiac sales elsewhere in the Northeast.
Oldsmobile dealers in New York have tried to sell cars with the pitch that big, strapping Americans can't fit comfortably into cars designed by, or for, Japanese: ''That's why our car is built for our size families, not theirs.''
It is pathetic that American products are sold that way. What has gone wrong? Lots, but let's start with America's increasingly strident and selective intolerance.
Americans are fierce at stamping out smoking in elevators and censorious toward anyone caught being insufficiently risk-averse regarding cholesterol. Would that Americans were equally impatient and censorious about lax standards (''We're No. 5!'') that are producing pandemic shoddiness in everything from cars to art to second-graders' homework.
If Americans want to worry about the right risks, they should worry about the Buick ad in the context of this fact: Military assets are declining relative to economic performance as an index of national power and stature. We are pounding our sabers into LeSabres, and Buick LeSabres have figured prominently in recent ''initial quality surveys.''
LeSabre was ranked second among all models, foreign and domestic, in 1989 but in 1990 fell to sixth. However, because it still ranked higher than any other car made by General Motors, Ford or Chrysler, Buick has advertised LeSabre as ''the best-built American car.''
Do advertisers not understand that potential buyers understand the role of that modifier -- the adjective ''American''? It says, loud and clear, ''Don't expect us to measure up to the big boys -- the ones overseas.''
Americans would feel better, and might be more inclined to buy Buicks, if they saw an ad reprinting the list above, but with a text that says: ''Fifth place is not nearly good enough for Americans to brag about. And until we do better, we apologize.''