Friday, February 17, 2017

Remembering Ram's "Farmer"

Viewers across the world remark that the Super Bowl, which is "so uniquely American," provides a rare window into American culture by combining the drama of sports, the universal appeal of music, and a healthy dose of patriotism. This blog recently featured another post focusing on American nationalism, as reflected in Super Bowl rhetoric.

Many people watch the game anxiously awaiting to see which team is named National Football League (NFL) Champion (note: I generally watch for the ads and half-time show). While the Super Bowl is known as the ultimate competition for American sports, the American Marketing Association describes the Super Bowl as "the ultimate competition for marketers."

When watching the Super Bowl this year as a law student studying rural people and places, I could not help but reminisce about Ram Trucks' famous 2013 Super Bowl ad, titled "Farmer."  The ad, which aired on February 3, 2013 during Super Bowl XLVII, featured a recording of Paul Harvey's speech "So God Made a Farmer."

Harvey worked as a American radio broadcaster for ABC Radio Networks for 51 years, and he was known for his segment "The Rest of the Story." Harvey, who was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, was often referred to as "the voice of Middle America" and "the voice of the Silent Majority" by the media for his "flag-waving conservatism." According to Bruce DuMont, president of the Museum of Broadcast Communications, Harvey turned down multiple offers to broadcast on the East Coast so he could “stay in touch with his listeners and the American people.”

Harvey delivered his speech at a 1978 Future Farmers of America (FFA) convention. The speech acts as an extension of the Genesis creation narrative, referring to God's actions on the 8th day of creation.  In his speech, Harvey described the characteristics of a farmer in each phrase, ending them with the recurring "So God Made a Farmer." See Harvey's entire speech here.

The Ram commercial began with a stark photograph of a single cow in front of a snowy field and Harvey’s voice saying, “And on the eighth day, God looked down on his planned paradise and said, I need a caretaker. So God made a farmer.” The ad depicted a simple slideshow of rural photographs, featuring imagery including a black and white chapel in an empty field, aged and rugged farmers with split fingernails and tired faces, rustic farm houses with American flags, farmers working the land, livestock, views of virtually endless crop fields, generations of rural people, and a family praying around the dinner table.

One of the photographers that contributed to the images featured in the add, Andy Anderson, reflected on his involvement:
A transcendent project unlike any that I have worked on. 10 photographers capturing on there own terms the life of a farmer and rancher. All of us searching for meaningful images. Not any one photo rising above any others, but collectively voicing a message for folks and a vocation we have all really taken for granted. The last truly archetypical American worker. And who better else to match the images with than Paul Harvey…America’s grandfather.
The ad debuted during the 2013 Super Bowl in conjunction with Ram's "Year of the Farmer," which focused on praising the hardworking men and women who feed and clothe the nation and world.

According to NPR, the ad was part of Ram's partnership with the National FFA Organization (formerly the Future Farmers of America) aimed at "highlighting and underscoring the importance of farmers in America." Ram announced that it would donate $1 million to the National FFA Organization if it received 10 million views of the commercial on its website. The ad surpassed 10 million views in less than a week, and Ram presented the $1 million donation to Clay Sapp, the then National FAA president.

While the ad was praised as one of 2013's best Super Bowl ads for its gorgeous still images and focus on the consumer over the product, the ad was not without criticism. One critic, Rachel Lauden, stated:
The last farmer in the video is driving what appears to be a 9R John Deere tractor. That comes in at about $250,000-380,000. If his land is good quality. . . it’s likely to be about $5000 an acre. If he has a dairy, the family has been using artificial insemination for at least fifty years. . . . He uses computer software to manage the farm. He has a global positioning system to help him manage crops. . . . He’s a business man. He has to stay on top of the market. . . .  if we continue to accept the kind of images promoted by this ad, images of the farmer as a good hearted chap, working with the technology of the late 1930s, and thus not frightfully smart, how are we ever going to get a sensible grip on agriculture?
This criticism implies that the ad portrays farmers in a way compatible with the stereotypes of rural America and farmers, without giving credit to technological advances and modern realities in the agriculture business. Other negative feedback focused on the fact that the video featured predominately white farmers, thus failing to paint an accurate picture of the diversity of famers in America.

While Ram's visual portrayal of the farmer may not constitute a completely accurate depiction of rural America, the ad successfully brought attention to a large population of Americans on a national stage.


4 comments:

Kyle said...

The closing two paragraphs of this post are in tension, yet they concisely capture my initial thoughts about this commercial. (And other treatment of the same tropes in popular culture.) So these messages are both dead-wrong (emphasizing the wrong players and parts of modern farming) and badly needed (acknowledging and celebrating the people who help feed us). How can this be?

I think the answer has to be found in the blindness that the industrial food system creates. The toil and mess and noise and dust of food production happens "out there" while most of us consume its yields in ways that are increasingly divorced from those processes. We might find parallels in the wars of the last sixteen years -- a mostly rural workforce that bears the brunt of a national project. Like soldiers, we pay more honor to our farmers in word than in deed: TBIs go untreated, VA wait times grow; farm-input treadmills spin faster and faster, legal structures protect agribusiness interests.

But the phenomena differ in many ways, too. First, we all want food and many of us do not want war. While farming and military service may be careers of last resort for some, there are no signing bonuses for farmers. Most who serve risk life and limb, while many who "farm" are just at the top of the pyramid. But most importantly, military decisions are principally driven by policy choices while farming practices are mainly driven by economic forces. To the extent that we can stomach policy interventions into those market forces -- for instance, by preventing biology from being patented or lowering barriers to competition for non-industrial food -- we can reshape the destinies of farmers for the better. And you'd think that we would, too, if we think they're so nobly cast.

Wynter K Miller said...

Dear dnlauber, thank you for this reflective post. As I am not an avid (nor regular) Super Bowl watcher myself, I missed the Ram commercial in 2013, but I found it easily on Youtube. Its images are . . . to borrow Kyle's phrasing above, "dead-wrong and badly needed." I had several thoughts:

— Though they certainly do not appear in proportion to the number of white farmers depicted, the ad does show minority groups (e.g., an older African American man sitting in a truck bed, a Mexican (I'm speculating) family at a food stand, a young African American man in the field, an older white woman in winter weather garb, a, (arguably) non-white male in a hat). That said, I wonder how fair criticism like that linked to in the SFoodie article is. Given that the Ram commercial unabashedly draws on a speech from 1978, a time when only 3.2% of American farms were operated by minority groups, it's certainly accurate with respect to that time period. It seems the commercial is meant to be nostalgic for a bygone era, rather than accurate depiction of American farming in 2013.

*There were 2,478,642 farms operating in the U.S. (http://usda.mannlib.cornell.edu/usda/AgCensusImages/1978/05/01/223/Table-01.pdf), and
79,916 of them were operated by "black and other races" (http://usda.mannlib.cornell.edu/usda/AgCensusImages/1978/05/01/228/Table-62.pdf).

— With respect to Kyle's comment above re: signing bonuses for farmers and the suggestion that farming is now a "career of last resort," I wonder how accurate it is to describe farming as an undesired profession? Anecdotally, I have family in rural Illinois; my uncle's two sons grew up wanting (more than anything) to be farmers. At their rural high school, the "farm kids" (those with family that owned land, which the farm kids would inherit) were popular, and those unfortunate enough to have parents who did something other than farming (my uncle works for the US Postal Service) were pitied. Certainly it's much harder in 2017 to cobble together a livelihood as a farmer (at least in the traditional and nostalgic conceptualization of that term), but I wonder whether it's considered less of a last resort and more of a pie-in-the-sky desire (akin to saying you want to be President for children in DC) in much of middle America. Of course, these thoughts are speculation on my part, but I found an interesting article from NPR that seems to suggest that some of America's youth, at least, continue to think of farming as "noble work" (see http://www.npr.org/2015/01/03/374629580/a-young-generation-sees-greener-pastures-in-agriculture).

Kyle Kate Dudley said...

After our discussion with Assemblyman Dahle about his utter passion for farming, I've been intrigued by the concept of a new generation of farmers. I read the NPR article that Wynter's comment suggests and it has made me think for the first time that I can foresee a renaissance of farming, perhaps. Inciting such affection for the "nobility" of farming is, without a doubt, something that the Ram truck commercial did achieve in my opinion. As an interviewed farmer in the NPR article notes, "This is about creating something. This is about building something themselves. This is about using their two hands to make a difference..."

I can, without a doubt, see a similar drive in many of my friends and contemporaries. They want to be creative and make their own work schedules, but also be investing in something. They want to see the tangible fruits of their labor and also feel they're giving back to the planet. Farming, despite the extraordinarily hard work, is just that.

The commercial, without a doubt, leaves something to be desired, but media campaigns like it might have also (excuse the pun) have planted a seed in the heads of a generation.

Lisa R. Pruitt said...

Here is a story suggesting that farming also has a "mythic" place in France, which is the largest agriculture producer in Europe:

http://www.npr.org/sections/parallels/2017/03/01/517882201/in-a-heated-campaign-season-french-politicians-flock-to-paris-farm-fair