I think it’s important I disclose this right up top: I am not a farmer and never have been, although my dad grew up on a farm and I lived on a farm for the first five years of my life. I grew up in a rural part of Kansas. I now live in Houston, Texas.
Ever been in church and felt like the pastor was speaking directly to you? That’s what it feels like when I watch commercials made by the Chrysler Corporation these days.
It started with that Eminem spot for Chrysler, which I’m sure you all remember. The motif was that of a comeback, specifically for the City of Detroit, for the American auto maker and, to an extent, American manufacturing at large. Eminem narrated it, and the instrumentals for “Lose Yourself” played in the background. I got chills the first time I saw it.
The second was the spot in which Dodge (successfully) expressed what you might call “The American Spirit” using muscle car and Revolutionary War imagery. Chills again.
I’m not sure I’ve ever seen another ad campaign that stirs the soul the way this one does. It makes me feel like Dodge is saying so many things I would like to say about cars and America, and it’s obvious I am not the only one. These commercials wormed into parts of the American psyche I think a lot of us have let sit off to the side. It was like our psyche was a thick soup that had filmed over on the top, and this Dodge campaign was a big wooden spoon that mixed it all up again and turned on the heat.
For some of us, anyway.
Last night Chrysler dropped another one that made me take a couple deep shaky breaths. God Made a Farmer was the idea. It used an old speech by Paul Harvey, whose voice you know if you ever listened to an AM station in the Midwest and heard someone say “And that’s the rest of the story.”
That commercial summoned all sorts of feelings for me, almost all of which I was happy to feel. But a lot of people disagreed. More people disliked this ad than disliked the Eminem or Challenger spots, it seems, and I think it’s informative to explore the reasons why.
The first kind of person who didn’t like the spot is someone who thinks farmers are plain and corny and backward and stupid. This is someone who thinks he’s better than a farmer because he wears ironed pants to work and voted for Obama. This person is a bigot just like any other kind of bigot and doesn’t deserve to be listened to.
Some more open-minded people have no issue with farmers or the celebration of their craft, but don’t like it when people say God created things. They also may have felt it sounded a bit like Paul Harvey was delivering a sermon designed to make them feel guilty for not being a farmer, and found that to be off putting. This wasn’t my reaction, but I get it.
Still others enjoyed everything about the spot, right up until the end, when all these wonderful words and beautiful imagery about farmers was spoiled by a cheesy tag line — “To the farmer in all of us.” — and a cynical attempt to hock Rams, even though the connection between the Ram and farming is only sort of meaningful.
I experienced that same icky twinge right at the end, which was curious because I hadn’t felt that way at the end of the Eminem or Challenger commercials, even though Chrysler was doing the same thing in all three — stirring the soul with patriotic and nostalgic ideas and connecting them to an expensive machine.
But here’s why that happened: The Eminem commercial was an attempt to sell a car, but can you even remember what the car was? I think it might have been the Chrysler 300, but it hardly mattered. Chrysler wasn’t selling a car with that ad, it was selling American Cars or, more broadly, American Manufacturing. It was trying to inspire belief that American cars, and Detroit, would again be what they once where. And this is important. It is important that America makes good things, and it is important that Americans believe America makes good things, and Detroit is such a perfect metaphor for the whole thing.
Chrysler had to stretch a little further with the Dodge Challenger commercial, but if you know anything about the muscle car era, you can appreciate the connection. The original Challenger (after which the new one is styled) was the product of one of the most important periods in American history. The years between World War II and the election of Jimmy Carter were without question the golden age in the American auto industry. Nobody in the world made cars like Americans did. They were big and fast and beautiful. They had huge chrome bumpers and fins that reminded you of spacecraft, which was because we were literally sending people into outer space at the time. As the 50s and 60s moved toward the 70s the designs got a little sexier and a little less regal. The engines got bigger. From 1970-74, Dodge made the Challenger, and what a name for a car built at that time, on the heels of the Civil Rights movement and Vietnam.
To connect the new incarnation of the Challenger — released in 2008, by the way — to the genesis of the United States was a mouthful, but if you understood what a muscle car really was, it was one you could swallow.
The Ram has no such associations. We associate farmers with pickup trucks, but the pickup truck does not register with me as being more culturally important than any other kind of implement. Sometimes people drive trucks as an expression of personal style, the same way some people wear cowboy hats. But the real reason the cowboy hat exists is to keep the sun off your neck, and the real reason pickup trucks exist is so you can throw stuff in the bed. These things are iconic, but they’re iconic because they’re ubiquitous, and they’re ubiquitous because they’re necessary.
In short, there is not a farmer in all of us.
That tagline undermined everything Paul Harvey said. It took two minutes to build it, and two seconds to destroy it. The whole point of the commercial was that farmers are special, and then it swoops in at the end to tell us that we can be a farmer just by buying a Ram? What’s the message here?
I don’t mind that Chrysler was trying to sell something. You’re watching the Super Bowl — you know somebody is trying to sell you something every second you’re watching .I think if not for that tagline, the commercial would have been perfect. Just show the Ram at the end and don’t say a word. Paul Harvey said everything that needed to be said.
But if you rolled your eyes because you thought Paul Harvey was stretching the truth a little bit, then you obviously don’t know any farmers.