I don’t know if there’s a market study out there on this, but I gather that a lot of people watch the Super Bowl each year not for the game itself, but for the bells and whistles that surround it: the halftime show, the national anthem, the pageantry, and especially the ads. Like most years, this year’s Super Bowl ads were filled with crass humor, talking animals and sexy women.
But then there was that 2 minute Chrysler ad. Or maybe it was an ad for Detroit. Or for American industry. Or for the fighting spirit of the urban Midwest. Or, for that matter, for Eminem. Whatever the precise target audience this ad was powerful – certainly one of the most powerful I’ve ever seen during the Super Bowl.
The ad features a montage of gritty images from Detroit, juxtaposed alongside local symbols of perseverance and redemption: the fist of Joe Louis, statues outside grand old skyscrapers, WPA murals portraying the spirit of the working man, football players practicing. Even local Michigan figure skater, Alissa Czisny, makes an appearance. The gospel choir at the gorgeous Fox Theater completes the image of redemption, bookended by Eminem’s declaration that building cars – even building America itself – is “what we do” in Detroit.
First a few caveats: I don’t care for Chrysler cars. I don’t like Eminem. And Detroit has not really been “back” from hell yet. And, yes, it is still an ad for a mediocre car that is now made by an Italian-owned company with government bailout money.
But that seems almost not to matter as you watch the 2 minute ad unfold. What makes the ad so powerful is the emphasis on heritage. Most advertisements are explicitly future-oriented, forecasting a time that nobody here knows but that will surely come to be…if only you buy the product on sale. If the past is to be presented at all it is usually done with a touch of irony: “Remember when we used xyz to clean up our mess or drive around town? What fools we were then!”
Despite the multiple messages implied in the title – “Imported from Detroit” – there is something refreshingly un-ironic about this ad. The industrial heritage that built Detroit and the nation as a whole was very real. What the ad does is remind us that that heritage is critical to making us “who we are.” It does not matter in the end what we buy or what newfangled image we hope to assemble. No. What matters is “who we are,” and by implication, “where we come from.”
When ads delve into heritage they usually just gloss over old stereotyped images as if the story of the past inexorably leads toward a bright future. Or perhaps heritage gives a sense of trust: “We’ve been at this for so long that you know you can trust us. We’re no fly-by-night operation!”
But the last few years have shown how little that company-specific heritage can matter. Many century-old enterprises like Bear Stearns literally crumbled overnight. Whole industries – the automotive sector first and foremost – collapsed in a seeming reminder that capitalism rewards one’s most recent accomplishments, not those of the past.
This ad had no teleological end game, however. It doesn’t proudly proclaim: “We’re back!” so much as it says, “Your roots make you real. Everything else is contrived.”
There was an explicit dig at other cities in the end: New York, Chicago, Las Vegas and Seattle. But the real target was the Sunbelt where cars have been made now for several decades. Whereas Tennessee is now, in actuality, the Motor State (with other major plants in South Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi and Kentucky), the “Imported from Detroit” ad shows that these Sunbelt states really don’t have the roots, the grit, the heritage to make you feel proud as an American. Southern auto plants have the air of colonialism around them – if not Alabama why can’t Hyundai just slip on down to Honduras? It’s not like Alabama has any real cultural and historic claim to industrial greatness (well, Birmingham has iron and steel, but the Hyundai plant is in Montgomery, which has very little industrial past). Who better than Eminem to proclaim it: the Sunbelt may have cheap land, cheap labor, and groveling politicians who mortgage their states’ futures to lure in foreign auto makers, but only Detroit can claim that its industrial heritage is homegrown.
Alas, the image is simultaneously conservative and left wing. It is conservative in its nationalism, its emphasis on American values of hard work and redemption, and its reverence for tradition. But it has a strong left wing undertone as well, emphasizing the collective nature of America’s past greatness and, by implication, future progress.
Add to this the context of this Super Bowl, which pitted two teams with explicitly industrial origins and names – “Steelers” and “Packers”. Both teams come from cities and regions that have “been to hell and back,” like Detroit hopes to do.
There is, I suppose, a deeper irony to this ad then. When industrialization really began to take hold in the South in the early 20th century 12 prominent Southern Agrarians expressed their anger at the loss of an old agricultural and rural heritage – flawed (especially on matters of race) as that heritage might be to the modern reader. They understood that the hyper-individualism associated with modern industrial capitalism would undo Southern civilization as they knew it. Now, 80 years later, it is the industrial Midwest decrying the loss of its own heritage – flawed as it was (not in terms of race but in terms of modern global market realities) – and heralding its past as the key to its current and, hopefully, future collective identity.