Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Selling trucks, shortchanging reality

Chrysler’s ad for the new Dodge Ram was arresting from the first moment. The crackle of an old radio marked a departure from the Super Bowl’s diet of anthropomorphic, snack-food loving animals and club scenes touting Budweiser’s latest iteration. The commercial’s aged patina and no-nonsense narration evoked a pared-down, no-nonsense America.

The ad featured late radio broadcaster Paul Harvey delivering his 1978 homage to the American farmer over a slideshow of classic farm scenes. “And on the eighth day,” Harvey declared, “God looked down on his planned paradise and said, ‘I need a caretaker.’ So God made a farmer.” The slideshow is unabashed Americana: pickups and barns, prairie churches and weathered farmers.

Chrysler’s play at returning us to our rural roots was heralded as a marketing triumph by most in the industry. Heartland politicos were understandably tickled: even Iowa’s Governor Terry Brandstad joined the media chorus, quipping that he “thought it was one of the best ads that aired during the Super Bowl.”

Once our plucked heartstrings settled, however, some began to see something subversive. The ad painted a portrait of American farm life that is racially homogeneous and dominated by the family farm. The brief flash of a darker-skinned family in the middle of the ad only made the discrepancy starker.

Agricultural America isn’t all white – fully half of farmworkers are Hispanic – and the family farm hasn’t dominated rural economies for quite some time. Taken as homage to those producing our food, this commercial clearly comes up short. The Atlantic broke from the general gushing, deriding Chrysler’s trumpeting of outdated rural tropes as 'whitewashing':
Now, did God make Mexican farmworkers or only white farmers? Is the strength and toughness that comes from hard work God's gift to white people only? [...] the way this ad whitewashed American farming leaves Mexican farmworkers and their children "excluded from the process of patriotism[.]"
Other criticisms were more tempered. Here's what NPR had to say:
Despite these objections, one thing is for sure: For two captivating minutes Sunday night, the values and future of American farming left the sidelines of the popular conversation to dominate a very, very large stage.
I felt quite the opposite. While I enjoyed the commercial and Paul Harvey’s rousing speech, the commercial did little to shed light on the issues facing rural America. By valorizing a narrow slice of rural America, I think Chrysler actually contributed to a broader cognitive dissonance between the myth and reality of rural America. I think waving images of Grant Wood's rural America to sell trucks is harmful because it inoculates us against a full discussion of the issues. This ad belongs in the canon of cultural references to the half-truths of the rural myth discussed on this blog.

Assuaged by the myth of Paul Harvey’s Heartland, we seem largely content to put rural immigration issues and poverty aside. The close association between white farmers and agrarian values only stokes the passions of those who believe these values are under siege by the latest tide of immigrant farmworkers. Public perception of agriculture also certainly contributes to the untouchable nature of the farm bill. The American food production system is often inhumane, irresponsible, and inefficient, yet metro-centric media continues to fetishize a rural reality that simply isn’t.

Chrysler is pledging up to one million dollars derived from ad views to FFA, an organization dedicated to agricultural education and the original audience of Paul Harvey’s speech. They’re a fine organization, albeit not one terribly inclusive of minorities, but I’m left wishing Chrysler did more. Between this commercial and their paeans to Detroit from Super Bowls past (we’ll ignore their military exploitation misstep), Chrysler has proven masterful at spinning narratives that insert itself in the fabric of our dearest American myths. I wish they’d go a step further and shed some of that storytelling power on American reality.


Miranda Dugan said...

I agree, the way the commercial portrayed rural life overlooked the dozens of problems facing rural America, and maybe even harmed those working to improve rural life by painting rural life as a heaven on earth.

Scrampbell said...

Great points are raised here regarding the portrayal of agriculture in America and the implications of our romanticizing and nostalgia. Given the dwindling number of young farmers and aging farming population as well as the commercialization of agriculture I am surprised that anyone can buy into this dated and homogeneous portrayal of America's farms.

Hannah said...

I love the topic of this post - advertising provides such great insight into America's weak spots. As critical observers, we can benefit from the ad agency's marketing research to tell us, if not how America thinks, then at least what the experts believe will entice Americans to spend money. In their choice to hinge a big ad campaign on the classic image of the American farmer presented here, Chrysler is revealing just how potent is our collective attachment to the myth itself.

Erin L said...

I agree that the whitewashing of farming is troubling, but when does advertising not present an idyllic vision? Sometimes it seems like the ads in nationally televised events, specifically the Super Bowl, provide great opportunities for discussion. Although these conversations are probably mostly engaged in by academics and bloggers, it seems like controversial ads provoke some of our best discussions.