Everybody's Got One
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Saturday, September 30, 2006

Two narratives, not meshing  

I saw an absolutely fascinating Chevy ad today during the Fox Saturday afternoon baseball game. Part of the rollout of the new Silverado campaign, it features John Mellencamp's new song Our Country played under a montage of historical images that supposedly captures post-war America. (And I ask with Lileks: [W]hen will the concept of “postwar” stop making sense to most people, I wonder? Twenty years from now, you won’t hear it used much. As the boomers' parents die off, basically.)

The first image is GIs returning home, waving at the Statue of Liberty. Then a New York streetscape, with the old cars, cutting to an assembly line of new ones being made. (Can we talk about Fordist America in a Chevy ad?) Then a close-up of a record spinning, and a beach party featuring a bikini-ed girl dancing, and a hula hoop. Then Rosa Parks sitting on a bus. Then a fifties dad (looking a bit like Jerry Lee Lewis) holding a child on a vacation at the beach, and kids riding bikes in the suburbs.

Then Ali (or maybe Cassius Clay) knocking out a white guy. Then Vietnam, and hippies dancing, and crowds on the Washington mall, and MLK's speech, and protesters carrying a peace flag, and Nixon leaving office, and the moon landing (which happened earlier, but that would interrupt the narrative line).

We skip the 70's, 80's, 90's, and early 00's (nothing meaningful happened then, did it?) and go to the present day. There are multiple shots of devastated New Orleans, one of New York with the towers missing from the skyline - because Katrina was a far more significant event than 9/11 - and lots and lots of cowboy hats. And kids. And trucks.

I believe more and more in the truth behind Dr Sanity's Tale of Two Realities. We can call the competing realities left/right or blue/red - not especially appropriate or accurate, because the political differences are mostly a manifestation of deeper cultural (or psychological, or developmental, or epistemic or ontological) issues, but such are the terms we have. And I believe that some part of the increasing partisanship comes from voices raised in an attempt to be heard across an unbridgeable divide. (Some comes from the sense that those on the other side must be lying, stupid, or delusional, of course.) And I agree with Gagdad Bob that what distinguishes the two is the framing narrative, which determines both which facts are meaningful and how they are to be interpreted in the larger picture.

What makes the commercial so fascinating is that it was obviously designed by people with one narrative to appeal to those with another. People who work in ad agencies (or anywhere in the media complex, or other members of the New Class) don't buy trucks. (Or have kids, much.)

David Ogilvy said, The consumer is not an idiot; the consumer is your wife. But when the product is full-size pick-ups, blue-state wives are not your target market. Increasingly, neither are your neighbors. These days, the folks in blue states who buy trucks are mostly the contractors you hire to work on your house. (And see Dear Prudence for a competing-narrative take on that.)

So the America presented in the ad was tailored to appeal to the red narrative. (Which blues think means to white males.) At least, America in the present tense was. Lots of wide open spaces, and kids and cowboys and pick-ups. Rodeo and NASCAR. Loving, present fathers.

Who isn't present? Mothers, for one. For another, the only black faces are Muhammed Ali, Rosa Parks, MLK, and a contemporary guy standing outside a row of ruined houses in New Orleans (followed by images of white people gathering in a field somewhere to raise a house frame against the sky). The only people in uniform are draftees in 'Nam and firefighters posing in front of their truck, but I think that's more a failure of blue imagination than an intentional omission.

But the America of the past is firmly anchored in the blue narrative. It's as if people for whom the fifties are a golden time of new beginnings and the sixties are the hinge-point of the world (who currently control the media and the history books, remember) don't even recognize that there might be a revisionist narrative out there somewhere. Evoking the time when we were kids should serve to remind you how much you love your kids, right?

So is this thing going to sell trucks? Some, probably, because red-narrative people are patriotic no matter who tells the story. But enough to save Chevrolet from decades of bad decisions, when mileage is becoming a greater purchasing issue and smaller trucks are more popular (though less profitable)? Unlikely.

Would a more internally consistent narrative have made a better ad? Sure – but it wouldn't have been as interesting. Or revealing.

Update: The timestamp on this was completely fortuitous. Had I thought to choose, I might have selected 9:12 ... but that resolution is a ways off.

posted by Kelly | 9:11 PM link
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