So God Made A Super Bowl Commercial: On Dodge and Politics | MIT Center for Civic Media
Chris Peterson is an admissions officer, teaching assistant, and researcher at MIT. He works at the intersection of digital strategy, new media, and social change.
In addition to his research affiliation with Civic, he is on the Board of the National Coalition Against Censorship, a Fellow at the National Center for Technology and Dispute Resolution, and the founder, owner, and sole-proprietor of BurgerMap.org.
He earned his B.A. in Critical Legal Studies from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where he completed his thesis on Facebook privacy and/as contextual integrity advised by Ethan Katsh and Alan Gaitenby. He earned his S.M. in Comparative Media Studies from MIT, where he completed his thesis on user-generated censorship advised by Ian Condry, Ethan Zuckerman, and Nancy Baym.
So God Made A Super Bowl Commercial: On Dodge and Politics
This past Sunday, like most Americans, I watched the Super Bowl. And, like most Americans who watched the Super Bowl, I saw a lot of ads. Some were good. Some were not. Some I have already forgotten. But one, in particular, I have not: Dodge's "So God Made a Farmer":
This ad is different from most Super Bowl ads. It's long (and expensive, at $4 million per 30 seconds of airtime). It's simple. It's striking. It features no hijinks, no supermodels, no Psy. The only identifiable celebrity figure isn't even a figure, it's a voice: that of Paul Harvey, the iconic AM radio broadcaster, delivering his famous "So God Made A Farmer"> speech at the 1978 Future Farmers of America convention.
BleacherReport immediately called it the most memorable ad of the Super Bowl. Cindy Gallop of the This is not the Chrysler Group's first foray into long, patriotic commercials. Those who watched other Super Bowls may recall Chrysler's highly regarded 2011 Imported from Detroit and 2012 Halftime in America spots. It has, however, been more controversial than either of these spots, in large part because of what Alexis Madrigal of the Atlantic has called the whitewashing of the American farmer:
I decided to count the race and ethnicity of the people in Dodge's ad. Here's what I found: 15 white people, one black man, and two (maybe three?) Latinos. I couldn't help but wonder: Where are all the campesinos? The ethnic mix Dodge chose to represent American farming is flat-out wrong.
It's true that whites are the managers of 96 percent of the nation's farms, according to the USDA's 2007 Census of Agriculture. But the agricultural workforce is overwhelmingly Mexican with some workers from Central America thrown in. The Department of Labor's National Agriculture Worker Survey has found that over the last decade, around 70 percent of farmworkers in America were born in Mexico, most in a few states along the Pacific coast…
The whitewashing of the American farmer is especially poignant when juxtaposed with the public debate over comprehensive immigration reform. My Civic colleague and friend Rogelio and I started talking about satirizing the ad by making a version with the same audio overlaying more demographically accurate pictures. But we were beaten to the punch by LatinoRebels and their post The Farmers that Pablo Harvey Forgot, which featured the following video:
But there's a larger problem which includes and extends the skewed demographics. At the same time that we as a polity are deciding precisely how poorly to treat migrant workers in this latest round of reform, and at the same time that what few small farms which still exist are increasingly either a) dying or b) affectations, we as a population are being sold trucks by way of nostalgic appeals to a past which is gone and a present which doesn't exist, appeals made by a widely beloved but deeply problematic member of America's conservative old guard. As Ethan Zuckerman put it while we were discussing this ad around the Civic table last night: is this ad selling trucks to farmers, or is it selling the idea of these farmers to rich white people who like everything these farmers represent and can shell out the cash to buy a new RAM?
It's a rhetorical question, of course: the answer is uncontroversially, unambiguously the latter. Which is perhaps not surprising. Selling trucks as tools to migrant farm workers isn't as good a business as selling trucks as semiotics to suburbanites. But that doesn't mean the migrant farm workers don't need trucks and support.
So hey Dodge: if you're going to sell your trucks off the backs of invisible, unappreciated migrant farm workers, why not a truck for farm workers? How about something which, like they, is strong, and reliable, and powerful, and affordable? Something which flies beneath the radar but without which we could not live life as we are accustomed?
Alternatively, and with less infrastructural expense: if you're going to spend the cultural capital of farmers, why not reimburse them by speaking up for fair immigration reform, for migrant worker rights protections, for the DREAM Act? If you're going to
exploit celebrate farmers why not also support them? You have a partnership with the Future Farmers Association, but why not the United Farm Workers? How about paying the campesinos back for all they've paid you forward?
It may be too much to expect a car company to do anything like this. But it's not too much to demand it.