Another Super Bowl has passed, and with it has passed several attempts by corporations to trick us into thinking we need to buy what they are selling. We all know that the Super Bowl is about more than the game of football; for many, it is a social opportunity as well as a sporting event. Over the past several years, the commercials have become as big, if not a bigger, draw than the game itself. It seems to me that before this became the standard, the commercials were actually better. Madison Avenue saw it for what it was: an enormous audience of sports fans and their associated hangers-on. No longer did the commercials need to be tailored specifically to football fans; they could be crafted to appeal to the general American public, which included the spouses, friends, and families of the actual football fans. I feel no shame in admitting that for years I, too, was more interested in the commercials than in the game. Now, however, my interest has taken a decidedly different turn.
Two commercials in particular caught my interest, and they were both produced in the service of the same corporation. Chrysler created one ad for its Jeep division, and another for its Ram truck division. The Jeep commercial features a serious narrative intoned by Oprah Winfrey, telling us that we cannot be “whole again” until our men and women in uniform are back home with their families after completing their heroic service. The Ram commercial is soundtracked with an old speech by famous conservative radio commentator Paul Harvey, who extols the virtues and values of the American family farmer. In both commercials, the money shot of the product being sold is saved until the end. This serves the purpose of luring the viewer into a particular state of mind – one of admiration for our heroes, whether military or farming – and then associates that feeling of pride, nostalgia, and lump-in-the-throat patriotism with the product. Manipulative? Absolutely. Does it work? Absolutely.
So what’s my problem here? I don’t assume that every Super Bowl ad viewer is credulous enough to fall for the Madison Avenue hype. Most viewers know they are being manipulated, even if unconsciously. But how many people really stop to think about it? I’m sure there are reams of research on effective advertising strategies that trick consumers into believing they need things that in reality, they simply want. However, I do think the kind of shameless manipulation manifested in the Jeep and Ram ads is particularly egregious. What do Jeeps have to do with the socioeconomic realities that make so many young Americans believe their only real hope of success in life is to join the military? These young men and women are not heroes in the sense that this commercial wants us to believe; that is, they are not heroic because they put themselves in harm’s way. They are ordinary people with ordinary foibles, and serving in the military does not, in and of itself, make them “heroes.” (This is also a rant for another day; I believe the word hero needs to be defined much more narrowly and that it is cheapened by applying it to every single person who does a difficult job.) If anything, their heroism lies in accepting an extremely narrow range of choices in life and making the best of it. Jeep has nothing to say about changing the structural realities of our society such that status inequalities are erased and military service truly becomes one choice among many, as opposed to an avenue of escape for those who have very few avenues to pursue.
I have the same issue, although slightly less so, with the hero farmer portrayed by Ram. Undoubtedly family farming is strenuous and difficult work that is not taken lightly by those who pursue it; but at the same time, being a farmer does not somehow instill men (and the commercial features only men as the farmers, with women and children as support staff) with deeper, or truer, or greater values than the rest of us. I realize that the commercial is not meant to imply that only family farmers have these strong, quintessential American values of hard work and sacrifice; but the symbolism of the farmer is very powerful in our national gestalt. And just like the Jeep commercial, I wonder what, exactly, Ram trucks have to do with these values. In my reading about these commercials I read a comment stating that in reality, Ram trucks are probably out of the price range of the average family farmer today – especially since family farms are a dying breed and those that succeed do so without tricked out Rams that are really luxury cars in disguise.
So we get back to the original point: tugging at our patriotic and bootstrap individualistic values; wanting to see in ourselves what the commercials stereotype, generalize, and banalize about the essential symbols of American culture; and being tricked into thinking that cars, of all things, have anything whatsoever to do with it. Feel free to admire the values, but think carefully about what they really mean… and think extra carefully before accepting the false, hegemonic notion that you can purchase them.