Super Bowl Commercials and Desire: A Response

In the current pace of the news-media cycle, it is strange how far removed we might feel from an event as culturally significant as the Super Bowl (it aired just 10 days previous to this post). Many bloggers work to keep this pace in an effort to maintain interested readers. I confess, however, that I neither have the intellectual energy nor do I believe it is always helpful to stay ahead of the curve.

While I understand and embrace the reality that interest in the vehicle for the subject, Super Bowl XLVII, has already waned, I still believe it could be a valuable heuristic device for exploring the complex relationship between the church, culture, and desire. This discussion is especially pertinent for my context (the South) where the peculiarity of Christian formation is often muddled amid the generic religious-cultural powers that be.Image

Owen Strachan, a friend and former colleague, is right to suggest that commercials, especially those aired during the Super Bowl, reveal the forces at work in our social imagination (Here is his full post: A Tale of Two Americas). He observes that the commercials that night reveal two different Americas: “there is one that celebrates sex, hedonism, and self. There is another that celebrates family, sacrifice, and country. One is ultra-modern; the other is traditional. These polar Americas are competing strenuously for the hearts of citizens.” According to Strachan, the “Ram America” revealed in the Dodge commercial (featuring Paul Harvey’s “So God Made a Farmer”) is worth celebrating. It is “greater and grander” than the “Calvin Klein America” and other commercials that displayed “unbridled sexuality.” In fact, for Strachan this “Ram America” (and the positive reaction to it on the interwebs), is a sign of “hope for the old ways.”

These commercials certainly are competing for our hearts, but what these commercials reveal to me is not a cultural divide, but the extent to which advertisers know how to use stories to access our desires and loves. I contend, more specifically, that behind both Calvin Klein and Dodge Ram is a narrative of the “good life” inviting us to participate in the same “Commodified America.” Processed through the wider grid of how commercials themselves function in a Super Bowl culture, these commercials are two different sides of the same coin.

In contradistinction from Strachan’s suggestion, I suggest that both commercials celebrate the American way of consumption, and both commercials are powerful tools for forming observers into this way. Both commercials play on the imagination, and both commercials implicitly suggest that their product is the means to participating in the good life. To invoke the French critic, as Strachan does, de Toqueville might notice, upon his viewing, that the commercials are actually playing the same game and reveal, at base, the same America – where everything, sex and family values, is a product to be consumed.

I also suggest that the Dodge commercial can be more dangerous to the Christian imagination than the CK commercial because of the way it subtly exploits the signifiers of a particular brand of religiosity for the sake of consumerism. Good Christians know to scoff at the gratuitous display of sexuality in the CK commercial (although they might still purchase the underwear), but Christians are often unaware that they same type of desire for things of ultimate concern are cultivated in absorbing the American-professional sports-advertisement event as a whole. Christians often do not have a mechanism to ask questions like, “How is this entire viewing experience forming me? What is implied in the combination of these things? What larger forces are at work here? What does the American-sports franchise teach me about what it means to be truly human?” In this way, Christians run the risk of missing what commercials are actually training them to love because the commercial trades in familiar language and images.

Strachan identifies this phenomenon when he writes, “There was sweet irony here. The visual medium, with its ability to unveil what should be veiled, should technically be able to excite our passions more for lust and sex than, well, farmers and tractors. But that wasn’t true.” He is exactly right – sexuality is not the only visual medium that excites our passions. The Dodge commercial was equally (at least, perhaps more) visually formative because it also invited the viewer into a particular vision of the good life – a vision that, I believe, is not necessarily coextensive with God’s kingdom in Christ.

Even so, if those who support this “traditional America” had eyes to see it, I think they would notice that they are being used. The Dodge commercial commodifies and therefore cheapens the “way of the farmer” and the values embedded in that way. In other words, the median of the commercial betrays the message of the way of the farmer. The Dodge commercial may actually reveal that this way of simplicity, family, and hard work is being subverted by the way of materialism. How can we avoid the reality that the Dodge brand, not traditional values (whatever that is, really), is the primary beneficiary here?

Dodge is not making a move based on principle – they are making a move to sell more trucks. They have identified their target consumers and brilliantly branded themselves to serve that end. This is what smart companies do. Am I off base here?

Unlike Strachan, I do not believe that the Dodge commercial is a symbol of hope not only because it reveals how complicit “traditional values” are with the consumerism and materialism pervasive in our culture, but also because it reveals the extent to which Christians invest their social imagination in a system (i.e. the media) that potentially evacuates the space for concrete, public practices in Christ. In other words, the virtual high-fiving evoked by seeing a commercial for “our team” also reveals what we (evangelicals) believe is important about our identity and being-in-the-world.

What kind of political formation is it that leads Christians to be warmed by watching traditional values in a truck commercial? Is it not the kind of formation that settles for generic claims over the particularity of the Gospel? The Christian story is public through witness – witness to the reality of Jesus’ Lordship in a broken world. And the Dodge commercial smacks more of propaganda than witness.

My quibble is not that Christians might find the Harvey sound bite compelling (I think it is), but that they might fail to recognize that Harvey’s message was muted of its proclamatory force by being disembodied from its social context and then exploited for the same purpose that sex was exploited in many other commercials. May we do a better job of (1) identifying and resisting those subtle (and not-so subtle) cultural narratives not aimed at God’s Kingdom in Christ and (2) inhabiting the peculiar posture of the church on mission by witnessing to the truth of the Gospel in a way that reveals the world for what it truly is.

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5 thoughts on “Super Bowl Commercials and Desire: A Response

  1. Sounds like you’re taking the all-or-nothing approach. There was some good in the Ram commercial, a fact tacitly admitted here, but because it stayed true to the medium, it is all bad. That’s all well and good, but why not argue your actual point: What good can come of the entire Super Bowl?

  2. Andrew.
    Great question. The actual point is to shift the emphasis from “Is this good/bad?” to “How are we being formed in it?” (and the final 2 points in the last paragraph bring us to that question, no?) When it comes to culture, my observation is that Christians have done better with the former emphasis.

    I don’t think I communicated explicitly that the Ram commercial is “all bad” (at least I didn’t intend to). I do, however, think that what it reveals is more troubling than a symbol of hope. This isn’t as much an either/or approach as it is the identification that the medium is not neutral. And yes, I think the medium here subverted the message (which is not the same thing as saying it is “all bad”).

    Thanks for your interaction.

  3. Understood. Forgive my reductionism. You did not say that it was bad. You did, however, say that the medium subverted an otherwise hopeful message about “traditional family values”. (I agree that this phrase is unclear.)

    I used the deliberately dichotomous “bad” to simplify my comment and to align with your final paragraph, from whence my confusion comes. What do you mean by oppose? Should we ignore it? Do we analyze it, identifying what is good and what is not? If so, isn’t your friend right to applaud a company for being more right than other companies? Or, as my original comment asked, do we say that medium disqualifies the message and “oppose” it?

    (Or are you saying that no entity other than God is all good? Because that could have been said in a single paragraph, in simpler prose.)

    I doubt that many of the people who watched this commercial missed the fact that it was an effort to sell a brand. There are different ways to sell a brand, however. Some companies make it seem glamorous to use their product. Others appeal to more basic desires. In this commercial, Dodge went a different route. They aligned their product with values that I support, a subtle but important distinction. I also think that our praise is a more powerful way of effecting change than is our critique.

    I appreciate your taking the time to write this. I enjoy being challenged, and it is so rare to come across critical thinking on the Internet that I feel like I have to engage. Keep up the good work.

  4. Andrew
    Thanks again for pushing for clarification. I try to keep things under 1,000 words in this venue, which means I always run the risk of ambiguity in not being able to unfurl everything. Even in the comments I’m afraid we don’t have the space to clarify everything necessary to understand one another. So I apologize in advance because I won’t answer your questions satisfactorily, I’m afraid.

    Again, the point is that we learn to ask how things form us – and in that process we can’t separate the medium from the message. As I look at those commercials and their formative force, I see one story about consumption, not two stories. And as my language implies, I think it’s important to see these things as narratives, not isolated bits of good and bad stuff.

    Resistance (which is the key word here, not opposition) could take different forms and is always discerned by the Spirit and always followed by faithful participation. What we resist are the cultural narratives that (often implicitly) invite us into a way of being human that is other than the way of God’s kingdom in Christ.

    Maybe most people do “get” that Dodge was selling a brand, but even so I’m interested in the question I pose in the second-to-last paragraph. And my point is that Dodge did NOT take a different route – they appealed to the basic desires of their target audience (conservatives interested in “traditional family values”). I think evangelical praise for this commercial potentially reveals the lack of imagination within parts of evangelicalism for thick, Christian witness.

    Much more to be said. Thanks again for the dialogue. Peace brother

  5. I believe I begin to understand your position. It can be difficult to convey the enormity of a calling within a thousand words, can it not? We differ in our decision to see this as an atomic entity or as different parts that together compose a whole. You see the story. I see three things: A medium, a message, and marketing. (I spent seven years in a Baptist church. Forgive me my alliteration.) We are both correct. Or perhaps every English teacher I have ever had was wrong, but that is beyond the scope of this discussion.

    I dislike the stance I am now forced to take. Too many people confuse content with presentation, sign with signified. I do not. I do not believe that this commercial fully represents or was motivated by my values, but I see in it an attempt to encourage or set them apart. It encouraged you to write this entry, and in turn, encouraged me to respond. Without it, I would have spent an hour not thinking tonight. Without it, you might have written about Beyonce, and rest assured I would never have glanced at your blog had you done so. I am choosing to form my own narrative around it. Interestingly, so are you.

    So I see the narrative, Seth, and you do too. I feel that we must encourage what good there is and work to fix all that remains. This involves working with faulty materials, and yes, that includes generic political formations. We are warmed by them because they are partly correct. I believe that it is our calling to demonstrate the rest of the narrative — a specifically Christian narrative — so that those who read it have both a familiar context and an unfamiliar goal.

    Peace be with you, brother.

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