Dodge Ram Made a Farmer

Curator's Note

An estimated 108 million Americans were tuned into the CBS network on February 3, 2013. As per the annual tradition, some viewers were there to see the Ravens take on the 49ers in Super Bowl XLVII, while others were more interested in the big-budget commercials (running $4 million for each 30 second spot) that filled the time in-between game action.

"And on the eighth day," a deep voice beckoned, "God looked down on his planned paradise and said, ‘I need a caretaker.’ So God made a farmer." Matched with pristine still photos of American farm life and shots of Dodge trucks, the voice of legendary radio broadcaster Paul Harvey was powerful enough to bring even my raucous friends’ Super Bowl party to a silent stand-still.

Significant attention and abundant praise for the Dodge Ram ad followed. As NPR’s Marie Godoy articulated, "For two captivating minutes Sunday night, the values and future of American farming left the sidelines of the popular conversation to dominate a very, very large stage."

In reality, however, the Dodge Ram commercial failed to teach the nation much at all about farming in 21st century America. Rather, it served to obfuscate the American public from the realities of our contemporary agricultural experience. Indeed, what really drives much of our industrialized agricultural system today is not a Dodge truck, but rather the exploitation of Latino migrant farmworkers, the raising and slaughter of millions of animals in factory farming conditions, and an overall dependence on environmentally unsustainable farming practices. In fact, going by titles that included “So God Made a (Latino) Farmer” and “God Made a Factory Farmer”, it was these very issues that were highlighted by a set of online parody videos that went viral in the days following the Super Bowl.

I wonder – were these online retorts enough to disrupt the master narrative of idealized American farm life that Dodge pushed forth? Could the controversy that emerged after the commercial aired serve as a way to expand the nation’s discourse about the environmental, economic, and social implications of our agricultural system? Or did the slick effectiveness of the ad push us even further away from this necessary but long-overdue critical interrogation?

Comments

Rachel Silverman's picture

Asking Students the Same Question

Garret - great post. I love the way you describe the scene at your friend’s Super Bowl party. I imagine that happened in living rooms nationwide.

When the commercial came out, I was teaching and upper-level undergrad class about food. I asked my students many of the same questions you raise. And not surprisingly, their responses were mixed. Some held tight to the images Dodge presented while others watched the spoof ads with fascination and determination to make change. What they all shared, however, was the desire to continue supporting farmer’s markets (they had all just turned in an Ethnography of a Farmer’s Market Assignment) and eating local (a topic we were beginning to discuss). So I wonder, and this is part of the question I raised in my post, if some people see the spoofs and the spoofs get air time on NPR and critical discourse emerges, and others change their consumption patterns to support the idealized (and false) images presented, then can’t this be a both/and situation rather than an either/or? Can’t we see the changing consumption patterns that might result from the Dodge ad as a good thing even though we also know the white-washing Dodge employs is a bad thing?

Garrett Broad's picture

RE: ASKING STUDENTS THE SAME QUESTION

Thanks for these thoughts, Rachel. I’ve had similar conversations with my students as well.

In critical studies of media and communication, I think there is a common tendency to want to take one of two sides — outright celebration of the potential of participatory culture to overthrow the hegemonic powers that be, or an outright critique that sees participatory culture as an illusory promise that hardly makes a dent in the power of those hegemonic structures. The more I look at cases like the discourse surrounding God Made a Farmer, however, the more I come to conclude that these types of consumer-based movements are necessarily characterized by the type of ambivalence you point to.

That was the driving thrust, for instance, of Sarah Banet-Weiser’s recent book, Authentic(TM): The Politics of Ambivalence in a Brand Culture (highly recommended) http://www.amazon.com/Authentic-TM-Politics-Ambivalence-Culture/dp/0814787142

Ultimately, it might feel unfulfilling as scholars to take this middle ground approach — we’re often trained to take a strong stance and stick to it. But the both/and perspective can be a strong stance too!

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