Unlike most of the Super Bowl’s 111 million viewers, judging by the effusive tidal wave of tweeted praise that attended its airing, I did not love the new Chrysler ad. In fact, I hated it.
To be fair, I’m a reluctant car owner at best. They’re terrible for the environment, they’ve contributed to the death of the American city, they’re a hassle to buy, drive and own. And I especially don’t care for American cars because on the whole, these faults are even truer of them than of their imported competition.
I also dislike car commercials because they encourage people to take on more debt than they can handle using the same set of timeworn pressure tactics and identity games that inspire the sales of cheaper, more disposable commodities such as clothes and electronics. And, from an aesthetic standpoint, the ads tend to be deathly dull, cloyingly cute or smirkingly prurient. Or all three.
That being said, there was a lot to recommend Chrysler’s $9 million ad. It featured gorgeous cinematography, a cascade of inspiring imagery based around Detroit’s cultural and industrial landmarks, and a dreamlike narrative in which 8 Mile’s favorite son, Eminem, returns to the welcoming arms and reverberating voices of an African-American gospel choir, then breaks the fourth wall and addresses us, the audience, on his city’s behalf.
Eminem’s message, and the overarching message of the ad, is that Detroit is one of America’s flagship cities, on par with New York and Chicago, and that its rebirth, and by extension our nation’s, is in our hands. By buying American cars, the ad tells us, we can help to heal the rifts that have torn our country apart—racial, ideological and economic—and invest in the “know-how that runs generations deep in every last one of us.”
All of this sounds great on paper. Like many Americans, I’m very sympathetic to the plight of American autoworkers and to the communities that have been devastated by the dissolution of the U.S. auto industry. And I would love to see our nation’s wounds healed, and our once-proud industrial sector again become the envy of the world and the engine of our continuing collective self-realization.
Unfortunately, it ain’t gonna happen. Not this way at least.
For present purposes, I’ll leave aside the environmental issue—the fact that American automakers such as Chrysler actively fought against emissions and efficiency standards and did everything they could to kill innovative non-internal-combustion technologies in the womb. I’ll also ignore the fact that they paid dearly for this oversight in the marketplace, as their gas-guzzling behemoths were increasingly passed over in favor of smaller, smarter competitors such as Toyota’s Prius. I’m even willing to forget the massive, taxpayer-funded bailout that ensued as a result of their shortsightedness and greed. What really bugs me about the ad isn’t any of these things; it’s Chrysler’s paternalistic attitude toward the hardworking people the company so adamantly champions, adding insult to incalculable injury.
If you listen closely to the throaty, overearnest voiceover, it becomes clear that the economic logic at the heart of the Rust Belt’s problems is now being presented as a panacea. In the words of our deadpan narrator, “When it comes to luxury, it’s as much about where it’s from, as who it’s for.” In other words, the few remaining autoworkers in Detroit who haven’t been displaced by foreign manufacturers (or foreign labor forces in the employ of ostensibly domestic manufacturers) should take pride in their work, despite the fact that they’ll never be able to own it.
This is a slap in the face of Chrysler’s workers and, by extension, of America’s. Chrysler and the other Big Three automakers have spent the last few decades aggressively closing down domestic plants and exporting operations—and jobs—overseas to cheaper labor markets. As an interviewee tells author Paul Clemens in his recent book “Punching Out,” about the closing of an American auto plant, “The U.S. is becoming a licensing country. You’re not producing anything. You’re just importing and licensing. That’s why all the plants are shutting down, people are getting fired. ... For example, Chrysler was outsourcing their production ... because they would like to outsource a lot of parts from here to those low-cost countries. Everybody’s doing that.”
The Super Bowl commercial, then, is a shell game. Detroit’s pain isn’t the result of some existential crisis of faith, but a direct consequence of the amoral, profit-seeking behaviors of Chrysler itself. And the prospect of “taking pride” in producing luxury goods for the elite class of business professionals who benefited from this structural economic transformation is cold comfort to the millions of impoverished families trying to keep warm by the dying embers of an industry that no longer has any use for their deep-running know-how.
Karl Marx, that keen critic of class relations, called this sleight of hand “false consciousness,” and there’s something downright evil about the falseness of the promises made in Chrysler’s ad. Not only is pride out of the question, but economic rebirth certainly won’t happen just because wealthy and upper-middle-class Americans “believe” in our work force enough to purchase the goods they manufacture. The argument makes about as much sense as “trickle-down economics” (a term coined by another keen social critic, Will Rogers).
The truth is, working people don’t benefit by serving wealthy people; they benefit by organizing, and by serving themselves and one another. They find pride not in abstract and lofty ideals of American greatness, but in concrete and achievable accomplishments in their own lives and communities. Shame on anyone who allows himself to believe otherwise, and shame on Chrysler.