Bowled Over

Feb­ru­ary flies by, and not just because it’s a cou­ple of days shorter than other months. Here in Arkansas the weather at the end of the month is worse than the begin­ning, marked by the Super Bowl on Sun­day the 3rd. Like the other 49 states, prit’ near all of us watch the game, or at least had the set on while we went about our Sun­day evening usuals.

First lady Betty Ford tosses football to President Gerald Ford at Bethesda Naval Hospital in October 1974, following her surgery for breast cancer.

First lady Betty Ford tosses foot­ball to Pres­i­dent Ger­ald Ford at Bethesda Naval Hos­pi­tal in Octo­ber 1974, fol­low­ing her surgery for breast can­cer.
Credit Ford Pres­i­den­tial Library

Like other house­holds with no geo­graphic inter­est in either Baltimore’s Ravens or San Francisco’s 49ers, we enjoyed the com­mer­cials as much the game. Super Bowl ads are the most expen­sive, so they are the most rig­or­ously pro­duced. We view­ers try to fig­ure out where the money went on the bad ones, and often mar­vel at the clever spots.

Many ads will be shown repeat­edly until the next Super Bowl, as adver­tis­ers attempt to jus­tify their mar­ket­ing costs. Every year, though, some ads may not be rebroad­cast, not because they’re inef­fec­tive or offen­sive but because they’re spon­sored ser­mons, not prod­uct pro­mo­tions, at least directly. For exam­ple, the most talked-about one from 2012 was Detroit’s Valen­tine from Chrysler, nar­rated by Clint Eastwood.

As this year’s game droned on — a good long fight, Ravens 34–31, includ­ing the elec­tri­cal fail­ure dim­ming the stands in the third quar­ter — a com­mon com­mer­cial theme arose: The Amer­ica That Once Was. The com­mon mes­sage was, Amer­ica Can Be That Way Again. The com­mon sense com­prised, Who Ya Foolin’?

No Mon­day morn­ing quar­ter­back — until Mad Men returns to AMC on Sun­day nights in April — I hes­i­tated essay­ing about this. Then last week a stats-driven cri­tique was pub­lished by a Michi­gan news media group. The arti­cle, “Ram’s ‘Farmer’ Super Bowl Ad Tops 2013 Ad Blitz; Three Auto Brands Make List,” show the issue remained lively.

Three spots stood out.

I. Oprah Win­frey starred in another Super Bowl ad. She had played David Letterman’s foil for potato chips in 2007 then in 2010.

In a two-minute spot spon­sored by Jeep (rather than sell­ing Jeep vehi­cles), “Jeep: Amer­ica Will Be Whole Again,” Win­frey spoke for mil­i­tary fam­i­lies who pray for their ser­vice mem­ber to come home soon, and healthy.

Of course they do, but Amer­ica as a whole con­tin­ues to stand as the world’s police­man, its Armed Forces hav­ing left Iraq, still in Afghanistan to return it to sta­bil­ity, and for 11 and a half years, fight­ing what can only be a per­pet­ual War on Ter­ror­ism. Fam­i­lies may want their young back, but Amer­ica — both right and left — wants them to stay out there, risk­ing their lives in a hos­tile world.

II. For days after the ball game, Face­book glowed with links to Budweiser’s “Broth­er­hood” spot. That’s the one where the hand­some horse farmer raises a Clydes­dale in bucolic sur­round­ings with no other live­stock, and in sec­onds guides it onto a truck to join the beer company’s draft horse team. Months pass, and after a show in Chicago the horse runs down the famed Mir­a­cle Mile to nuz­zle his first human dad.

That reunion recalled Broke­back Moun­tain, where a man says to the love of his life, “I wish I knew how to quit you.”

Even grown-ups like me like fairy tales, but no child who’s over Santa Claus can think “Broth­er­hood” even remotely realistic.

Even as I mar­veled at the beauty of this minute novel — I just clicked on the ad and choked up again, dammit — I won­dered at its point. It’s not quite a ser­mon but not sell­ing beer either. The Clydes­dale draft horses long have been the brewer’s mas­cot, on screen and dis­played at state fairs and the like. That’s where I’ve seen them up close, absolutely won­drous, gigan­tic, proud creatures.

Bud­weiser and its adver­tis­ing experts are pro­pelling an aspect of the Amer­i­can mythos. This one may not hurt us, but it doesn’t move mat­ters along, either.

The worry is how much peo­ple believe this story might be close to what they believe or hope to be the truth.

III. “Page 3,” as the late, great Paul Har­vey would say. Tulsa-born Har­vey (1918–2009) was an incred­i­ble radio com­men­ta­tor. Not a jour­nal­ist, he deliv­ered the news nation­ally on ABC Radio for decades, along with read­ing its com­mer­cials and inter­spers­ing calm, mod­est — in con­trast to these Rush Lim­baugh days — moments of polit­i­cally con­ser­v­a­tive com­men­tary. I grew up hear­ing him on Fort Smith’s old KFSA-AM.

In 1978, Har­vey gave a speech titled “God Made a Farmer.” Two min­utes of that talk were incor­po­rated a ser­mon spot from Dodge Ram, accom­pa­nied by images of America’s heart­land and its peo­ple. It cel­e­brated the Emersonian/Jeffersonian farm. Even if you include area chicken houses oper­ated under the strict man­age­ment of Tyson Foods, it’s just not like that anymore.

While not gen­er­ally a con­ser­v­a­tive, I have long admired Har­vey. Years ago, Salon.com set out to mock him in a pro­file, but the arti­cle “The Finest Huck­ster Ever to Roam the Air­waves” came out sub­dued and respectful.

Recy­cling a dead guy can be unseemly. Harvey’s fam­ily obvi­ously approved this; in fact, I think he would’ve loved it.

But the fam­ily farm, as Har­vey described it 35 years ago was a sto­ry­book rar­ity then and even less com­mon now. Agribusi­ness pro­duces food — grains and pro­duce, poul­try and live­stock, and fish — in America.

The United States needs a reli­able and inex­pen­sive food sup­ply. Effi­ciency accom­plishes this, and we have to applaud that.

The greed that funds the effi­ciency, that you have to watch out for.

Even the climate-change-neutralizing organic sus­tain­able meth­ods won’t fly eco­nom­i­cally unless they’re appeal­ing to the conglomerates.

Dodge Ram pickup trucks will not get pro­moted by mov­ing toward real­ism, but read­ing online the pride that friends and acquain­tances felt over this again was wor­ri­some. I researched data about mod­ern agri­cul­ture to sum­ma­rize for this essay, when comic Will Ferrell’s Funny Or Die out­fit pro­duced a par­ody of this ad. This bit, “God Made a Fac­tory Farmer,” also about two min­utes long, con­tains what the facts that need attention.

Pathet­i­cally, instead of mim­ic­k­ing Harvey’s mem­o­rable bari­tone, it mocks it and his fans with a nasal sneer, appar­ently the voice of its cre­ator Nick Wiger. Maybe when Wiger grows up, he’ll learn how to cre­ate endur­ing, effec­tive satire.

I live in Arkansas, to a great extent because of its rural beauty. While you can’t fill in Super Bowl time-outs with doc­u­men­taries, sugar-coating the issues of the day helps peo­ple for­get about them. That leads to igno­rance and bad deci­sions. How about them toma­toes?

Copy­right 2013 Ben S. Pollock

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