Last year, Chrysler won the Super Bowl with a powerful, head-turning spot that seemed to sneak up out of nowhere, as opposed to those prelaunched on social media. Created by Wieden & Kennedy, it featured a grizzled Clint Eastwood delivering a half-time pep talk for America, a message that, as it turned out, could have doubled as an ad for Obama’s reelection.
And perhaps the dawning awareness of the spot’s essential liberal-osity sent Clint over a cliff. So he in turn talked to a chair at the Republican convention.
In advertising, there’s always a pendulum swing. My theory for this year is that Chrysler wanted to repeat the surprise, emotion, and beauty of the previous year’s Big Game successes, except this time without the messy excess leftyness. So it chose two agencies other than Wieden & Kennedy (GlobalHue for Jeep, The Richards Group for Dodge Ram) to deliver a more conservative view.
My colleague Bob Garfield had a pretty strong dislike for the Jeep work, but loved “So God Made a Farmer” for Dodge Ram pick-up trucks. But I hated it. Granted, every still photo is incandescent, including the opener, featuring one black cow and so much snow in milky white space. The power of those images, combined with Paul Harvey’s old-timey radio voice on the scratchy soundtrack made it the one commercial that was literally a showstopper. (Aside from the blackout.)
But unlike my compadres who work as creatives in advertising, and worshipped the spot, I was put off from the moment the name “Paul Harvey” appeared on screen. The spot is exquisitely art-directed, so his name in black letters was delicately dropped on top of all that beautiful snowy white space as if this were a memorial to a great American poet, like Robert Frost. (“Two roads diverged in a wood...”) Or a healer. Or ahem, a saint.
Much as his heroic voice is a powerful nostalgia-builder, Paul Harvey was a very divisive figure in his day. He was sort of a Glenn Beck for a pre-Fox Network time, a right-wing commentator whose rantings (full disclosure) my father turned off as soon as Harvey's voice came on the radio during family trips in the car. So I was predisposed to recoil on impact. (Not as much as my physical recoil from the GoDaddy kiss, but a more intellectual recoil, I guess.)
If Harvey were only a voiceover, his politics wouldn’t matter. But given the prime placement of his name, and use of a speech he presented in 1978 at a Future Farmers of America convention, the spot is totally imbued with Harveyitis.
I’m not the first to see a metaphorical whitewash coming out of all of that white space. Most people know that the farming industry has largely been taken over by Big Ag industrial farming corporations, and precious few family farms hold on. (And the smaller farms, reborn, are more likely to be pursuing greener pastures, like raising llamas or making artisanal cheeses.)
The Atlantic revealed that at present, more than 70% of U.S. farm workers are from Mexico or Central America -- many of them here illegally. These people were not pictured.
Obviously, no expense was spared by the agency in hiring top photographers to capture contemporary farmers. But they sure weren’t shooting in California. The ad seemed to want to capture the snow, and Marlboro-Cowboy-type rugged individuals who live in, say, Montana. (Indeed, the only person who could buy one of these expensive Dodge Ram trucks would be a gentleman farmer who uses his Montana property as a vacation home.)
Further, the cognitive dissonance I was feeling while listening perhaps has something to do with the fact that this “poem” was not really written by Harvey. He “adapted” it from a 1975 article he wrote, which was loosely based on a 1940 definition of a dirt farmer published in a farming journal. The original included a bit about a farmer “strong enough to rustle a calf, yet gentle enough to deliver his own grandchild.”
The spot skipped the home delivery of the grandbaby, but kept in all the religiosity. There are shots of a Christian church, a family saying grace, and a farmer praying in a pew. (Not to mention that the whole speech is based on Creationism!) I found this offputting-- but I guess it’s meant to resonate with a few rich Christian white guys with spreads in the Midwest.
Another controversy about the spot -- which Slate's David Haglund was quick to point out -- was that the whole thing, voiceover and all, with much less sophisticated visuals, appeared previously on a Farms.com video on You Tube. It turns out that Chrysler is working with Farms. com and the Future Farmers, and pledging to raise $1 million to support the FFA in 2013. So I guess that partially ameliorates the redo.
While “So God Made A Farmer” is a lesson in reality that’s mostly a fantasy, still, it’s not a documentary, it’s an ad. And indeed, it’s the most dazzling array of photographs matched to text since “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men,” the book of iconic photos from Walker Evans and text from James Agee that chronicled poor white tenant farmers in Alabama during the Depression. This combination of interviews and imagery was so powerful that it led to the passage of the Farm Security Act.
We have the opposite argument here. Never mind John Deere: Let your individual gentleman cowboy ride high on his Ram.