The Advertisements of Super Bowl XLVII: On Dodge’s ‘Farmer’

February 4, 2013
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This year’s Super Bowl wasn’t such a great event in terms of the advertisements. From the Doritos Dad to the Oreo bit in the library to Volkswagon’s accent concept, many major brands offered up spots that were trite and hokey. We have come to expect problematic representations and poor taste over the years, but it often seems as though being dull is the worst offense a commercial can make in the ‘brand bowl’. In this down year, the car commercials provided at least a bit of inspiration. Audi’s ‘Prom’ worked a sleek and knowing twist on the boy-gets-car-then-girl trope that perfectly embodied the brand’s sophisticated and understated luxury. Mercedes Benz’s ‘Soul’ offered an entertaining ride, even if the spot surely confused viewers with its hurried attempt to shift the brand from its established image as a staid, old-world model of luxury refinement to a hip, young person’s vehicle that is also now available at a decidedly middle-class price point (below $30,000). Mercedes’ problems were exacerbated by the extended power outage at the stadium that bears its name, which prompted the official Audi twitter account to, as Myles McNutt would say, throw some shade on Mercedes.

In the end, however, the most culturally significant national spot from CBS’ broadcast might be Dodge’s ‘Farmer’ spot for its Ram truck line. This spot opens with a still shot of a winter landscape dotted by a solitary cow with the name ‘Paul Harvey’ laying over it. Harvey was a longtime radio announcer on ABC known for his folksy delivery and conservative views. The spot features Harvey reading his ‘And So God Made A Farmer’ piece accompanied by still photographs of farms and farmers with the odd Ram truck featured in a pseudo-subtle manner. As the commercial reveals stills of community buildings (a church, barns etc), farmers at work, young farmers-to-be in the fields, and the family dining table, the viewer gets a strong sense of shared values emanating outwards from the individual to the family to the community to the nation. In fact, it is actually a  remake of a very similar spot from last year; the contrast between the two highlights the manner in which the Ram spot uses stylized images from the present to summon up a nostalgic conception of the past. It seems to be telling us that, even if things were better in previous era, the spirit of that time is still with us today.

As with that overt sense of nostalgia, the piece is straightforward in its ideological message, much like last year’s ‘Halftime in America’ spot featuring Clint Eastwood. Directed ‘to the farmer in all of us’, it articulates Ram trucks to an idealized conception of an America populated by hardworking folks who earnestly toil upon the land. It taps directly into what cultural historian Warren Susman called the ‘older, puritan-republican, producer-capitalist ethos’ that values a strong individual character emanating from sacrifice, earnest toil, self-reliance, and personal responsibility. This ideal still looms large in the dominant conception of the national psyche despite the fact that the country shifted to a consumerist ‘culture of abundance’ in the first half of the 20th century. One could even argue that, in a time at which the consumerist paradigm seems to be just about exhausted, this conservative ideal are more useful than ever for those who cannot envision an alternative future.

The obvious implication is that we can still connect to this ideal through the Ram, even if most Americans now lack even a tenuous connection to the lifeways depicted in the commercial. Alluding to this point, Yahoo Sports called it “Probably the most effective ad of the night, even if most of America doesn’t even know a real farmer.” This is a particularly sticky issue given the realities of farming today. In fact, Dodge has been criticized in various quarters for the spot’s lack of ethnic diversity  and the manner in which it completely ignores the contemporary reality of immigrant (legal and illegal) labor on massive factory farms. Of course, the spot is not concerned with the actual state of farming, but with a nostalgic image of the (white) farmer as an authentic entrepreneur who literally wrings his opportunities out of the American land. We know that this image bears little relation to the reality inhabited by most Americans (or people in America) for whom the notion of being a rural entrepreneur is completely foreign. But that does not mean that it is not useful: much like the a predominantly urban Canadian population that still identifies strongly with an idealized conception of the vast, untamed wilderness, there is a substantial subset of the American population that identifies strongly with the spot’s nostalgicideal. Ultimately, ‘Farmer’ is a good example of the sort of conservative national mythos that is always present, but which seems to take on increased prominence during times of hardship, uncertainty, and decline. This phenomenon is itself indicative of the sort of retrenchment of values – and denial of a certain aspect of a collectively lived reality – that tends to occur during these periods. In this respect, ‘Farmer’ is a sign of its time and, for this reason, perhaps the most notable commercial spot from Sunday’s broadcast.

Was there a particular spot that caught your eye (or ear) during last night’s broadcast? If so, please share them with our readers in the comment section. We would love to hear about any spots that you found to be particularly interesting, entertaining, or problematic.


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3 Responses to “ The Advertisements of Super Bowl XLVII: On Dodge’s ‘Farmer’ ”

  1. Jonah Horwitz on February 4, 2013 at 6:58 PM

    The Dodge ad is from the same vein of reactionary nostalgia car companies have been mining in ads for pickups for decades (the alternative being the more obviously gendered ready-for-all-terrain whoop-de-doo; presumably Chrysler recognizes that much of the Super Bowl audience is female).

    I’m not sure you can tie it that closely to the present moment. After all “hardship, uncertainty, and decline” have always been with us, and the reactionary invocation of a rural ideal have been around an awfully long time too.

    Just to give one example: I watched PBS’s documentary on Henry Ford last week, and Ford was deeply invested–via Greenfield Village as well as his anti-urban/anti-Semitic publications–in the idea of a return to “pure” American values he identified with whiteness/Christianity/temperance/rural and small-town living.

    The one thing I found distinctive about this ad was the way the broadcast static and/or surface noise in/over the Phil Harvey soliloquy was (seemingly) amplified, especially in the last few seconds after his voice had gone away. It’s like the aural equivalent of the dust, scratches, and leader folks often add to real or faked archival footage to give it a more palpable sense of “pastness.”

  2. Jonah Horwitz on February 4, 2013 at 7:23 PM

    I should add that the static was made particularly salient because the ad had no music. It felt austere in the context of other ads and, of course, the bustle of the Super Bowl itself. That’s part of its rhetoric of course.

  3. Christopher Cwynar on February 4, 2013 at 7:30 PM

    Those are good points, Jonah. Thanks. It would be interesting to see a comparative analysis of car commercials from different eras to see if there are variations in tone and thematics. You are undoubtedly correct that this is a vein that frequently mined to great effect. This instance seems to be particularly egregious to me, but perhaps it is not exceptional in the broader timeline.

    I love your second point about the static and the lack of music as they relate to the ad’s austerity. That is surely part of the reason why it was so striking for many viewers.