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