Sunday, April 10, 2011

If Ken Burns made car ads

Car ads are like little zeitgeist-meters. They’re amazingly responsive to all kinds of social anxieties, which they instantly repackage in ways that allow us to continue feeling good about driving. Feeling nationally or personally emasculated? Concerned about the transition into being a soccer mom? Worried about climate change? Fear not. You can buy a minivan and still be hot; owning a Nissan Leaf will cause you to be hugged by grateful polar bears. All is well in the world of the car ad.

Which is why Chrysler’s “Imported from Detroit” ad, which debuted in a two-minute version during the 2011 Super Bowl and has been running in a shorter format since then, is so striking. It brings the anxiety right into the frame of the commercial, using image, music, and association to evoke the long pain of deindustrialization and the resulting gutting-out of cities and economies. The full-length spot, which has topped ten million views on YouTube, features Detroit-based rapper Eminem driving through the city in a gleaming new Chrysler 200 (née Sebring) while a raspy male voice discusses the city’s ups and downs over footage of monuments, factories, athletes, homes. The opening riff of Eminem’s “Lose Yourself," a nervous insistent strumming, permeates the piece, giving it much of its edgy feel. Eminem winds up at the stunningly restored Fox Theater, where the guitar riff merges with a vocal crescendo from a black gospel choir on the stage, dropping to a reverent hush behind his somber delivery of the line, “We’re the Motor City, and this is what we do.”

I have no particular trouble finding things to critique about this ad, because, well, that’s what I do. There’s a subtle “othering” of Detroit’s industrial and postindustrial working people, in the “Imported from Detroit” tagline and in the images of past struggles—Diego Rivera’s famous Detroit murals, the gigantic iron fist of the memorial sculpture to Detroit boxing great Joe Louis—and present production of goods (the unseen workers behind the gleaming Chrysler 200) and services (the doorman who nods to Eminem as the car rolls past an upscale hotel). Despite the invocation of working-class heroisms and skills, the emphasis here is on luxury and the relationships that sustain it. The doorman’s brief nod seems to reinforce Rachel Sherman’s argument that these service-economy laborers become complicit in creating and sustaining the very hierarchies that limit their own options (see Class Acts: Service and Inequality in Luxury Hotels, University of California Press, 2007). This othering of the working class is subtly racialized, particularly in in the appearance of the gospel choir, which, as Douglas Harrison notes, is a kind of convenient shorthand in American pop culture for moral strength and resilient human spirit, appearing to transcend race while drawing on histories of racial struggle. The ad also plays with the romance of ruins, but very fleetingly, in a early brief shot of an empty building façade that is immediately superceded by more heroic and positive images. It hints at the struggle-and-recovery story even while it draws on the aesthetic fascination of decay and decline (the contemplation of which has become almost an industry in itself around Detroit).

So there’s lots to question here. But what I really find myself thinking when I watch this ad is, “Damn, these guys are good.” Never mind that it’s difficult to tell what’s an “American” or “imported” car at this point; never mind that the real challenge for places like Detroit is to try to discover what they might become apart from the gigantic industries that dominated them in the 20th century. The ad works on the level of myth, implicitly tying together the histories of labor and racial struggle, industrialization and deindustrialization, Detroit and America, TARP and Toyota, in a way that asserts persistence and resilience on every level. Oh, and it’s selling a car, too. The fact that the car seems like an after-thought only makes the ad more effective. This is the “tragedy with a happy ending” that William Dean Howells famously said Americans prefer when they go to the theater. It invokes loss, but in a way that feels shared and thus ultimately unifying. It is, in short, a Ken Burns film.

If Ken Burns made car ads, he would work for Portland, Oregon-based Wieden + Kennedy. W+K is fully capable of making jauntier car ads; their popular “Hate Something, Change Something” campaign for Honda, aimed at improving the image of the diesel engine in the U.K., was chirpy and upbeat (and wouldn’t it be nice if someone would undertake a similar makeover for diesels in the U.S.?). But they’re also not afraid of sentiment, and they’ve learned a thing or two from Burns about evocative music and how to enlist the gravitas of difficult histories without allowing them to provoke too many questions that might disrupt that bittersweet sense of shared struggle. (Their recent ad for Royal Enfield motorcycles is really a hymn to the city of Chennai, arguably the Detroit of India. Watch it and tell me you don’t find yourself thinking of Burns’s Civil War series.)

Ken Burns moves historical materials into the realm of the mythic, and W+K is moving that powerful combo into the realm of advertising. It’s daunting to think about how to counter that technique. A few comments on the YouTube ad do take a critical tack, but the overwhelming response is emotive and supportive. The ad creates a kind of virtual vernacular memorial space for the slow disaster that is Detroit; people are asserting solidarity and pride in a way that seems directed at the city’s working class but that is really being stimulated on behalf of capital, not labor. What would a counter-myth for a post-industrial, less car-dependent society look like? When we find one, we may do well to take a leaf out of W+K’s book when we're ready to sell the public on it.

~ Cathy Stanton


  1. fantastic analysis: witty, deep, puzzling

  2. Thanks! The time lag between the Super Bowl and now tells you how long I've been puzzling over this ad, which has kept defying my attempts to analyze it.