Half-time in America
I love the SuperBowl, but not for the reasons you’d expect. I usually don’t know who’s in it, don’t care who wins it, and don’t watch it. I do, however, love to use it in class when I teach TV Criticism because I’ve found the Super Bowl’s ads are useful texts with which to teach about ideology and ideological analysis. I’m currently teaching a grad seminar in TV Crit and last week we read and discussed John Fiske’s classic book, Television Culture. Once we’d discussed Fiske’s chapters on realism, ideology, hegemony, and television’s production values, I asked if anyone had a favorite Super Bowl ad. Chrysler’s ad jumped immediately to the top of the list. I hadn’t seen it, but since we screened it, I’ve been unable to get it out of my head.
There’s no doubt that the cinematically beautiful ad stood out among the animal tricks, movie trailers, sexism, and slapstick comedy of the Super Bowl’s typical offerings. The 120-second ad aired at halftime, costing Chrysler $12.8 million during the most watched television program of all time. It skillfully combines sound track, motion (they’re selling cars, after all!), and lighting to grab the audience’s attention and emotions. The ad begins with Eastwood walking off a football field as if to the locker room at halftime. He compares the Super Bowl’s halftime to the current economic downturn in the United States, suggesting “we’re all scared ‘cause this isn’t a game.” The ad’s visuals of American landscapes fade to industrial images of work as Eastwood recounts how the people of Detroit “almost lost everything.” Functioning as metaphorical football coach, Eastwood uses Detroit as a metonym for the US by comparing Detroit’s supposed revival to the nation’s current struggles, stressing that “Motor City is fighting again.”
At the commercial’s midpoint, the images of working class people and neighborhoods give way to brighter, optimistic images of American people, and a swelling soundtrack. We’re told that Americans survived tough times in the past because we “all rallied around what was right and acted as one.” The music stops and the camera focuses on Eastwood’s worn, rugged face. He snarls in his gritty, Dirty Harry voice: “This country can’t be knocked out with one punch. We get right back up again and when we do the world’s gonna hear the roar of our engines.”
In the days since the Super Bowl, the ad has been praised, parodied and panned. Political conservatives have attacked the ad, suggesting that its use of “halftime in America” is a thinly veiled reference to Obama’s campaign for a second term, a move they claim is promotional payback for the corporate bailout money the Obama administration gave Chrysler and GM (they fail to mention that the bailout was a Bush initiative). These allegations seem a bit odd given Eastwood’s very public alignment with libertarianism, and the ad’s obvious reference to Ronald Reagan’s 1984 campaign ad “Morning in America.”
What the buzz around this ad overlooks is its ideological message: by comparing US citizens to Super Bowl players, Chrysler artfully ties an aggressive nationalism to working class pride and automobiles. Its warning that in the past “the fog of division, discord and blame made it hard to see what lies ahead” instructs Americans to stop asking questions about how the move from an industrial to a service economy has impacted American workers, and how we got into this financial mess in the first place. Its visuals suggest that protests for better treatment and pay are holding back the US, and its soundtrack stresses that “all that matters is what’s ahead.”
Though to some it may seem commonsensical to use sports metaphors to describe our economy and cast our supposedly inevitable return to world dominance in antagonistic terms, we should question how this 2-minute ad unites visuals, audio, and ideology, and why it chooses to do so in these terms. Eastwood’s presence in the ad makes it easy to forget that Chrysler is the halftime coach here, and the company uses images of Detroit and the working class to implore workers to drop their demands, “pull together,” and rebuild their faith in industry and big business. Eastwood says our focus should be on “winning,” but winning what? Dominance in the global marketplace may be “winning” to US companies, but it does not guarantee security to American citizens.
Fiske skillfully uses Gramsci’s notion of hegemony to remind us that victories are never inevitable and power is always up for grabs. In this sense, it’s always “halftime in America.” I don’t need Chrysler’s pep talk to feel hopeful that the United States will rebound from these difficult economic times, in part because I find hope in movements like Occupy Wall Street that seek to unravel the discourses of globalization, progress, and corporate entitlement that have largely dismantled national support for workers’ rights. After too much time spent ruminating on Chrysler’s ad, I am more certain than ever that television criticism and ideological analysis are crucial components of the social change we need to move through this crisis–and believe we must continue to use them on every televisual text, no matter how big or small.