Chrysler’s Super Bowl Ram Truck commercial praising the American farmer was an unexpected big hit and is still being replayed around the country on talk radio. Rich Lowry and Peggy Noonan both contrasted the authenticity of that commercial fantasy with the falsity of the real event.
And why not? Even if the clip was a bit corny and overdone, the late Paul Harvey was a masterful throaty narrator in the romantic age before the onset of America’s now ubiquitous metrosexual nasal intonation. Harvey just didn’t sound different from the present generation, but from what we suspect, he sounded different from most generations to come as well. One reason that our age cannot make a Shane, High Noon, or The Searchers is that most of our suburban Hollywood actors cannot even fake the accent of either the frontier or the tragic hero anymore. When Tommy Lee Jones and Robert Duvall go, so goes too the last link to the cinema’s Westerner. There are no more voices like Slim Pickens or Ben Johnson. One of the successes of the commercial is that the photographed farmers did not speak, and left the impression of mute superiority.
It was not just Harvey’s mid-20th century voice that intrigued millions, but his unapologetic praise of the farmer’s work ethic, religiosity, and family values that he implied were at the core of American greatness, and were shared by all sorts of other American originals: the truck driver, the steel worker, or waitress whom we now all praise and yet prep our children not to be. We suspect that our kids would be better off at forty for spending a summer on a tractor at fifteen, but we just can’t seem to risk the loss of a season’s computer camp or eco-camp in the bargain.
The commercial’s platitudes were cleverly juxtaposed with grainy pictures of un-Botoxed people doing real physical work and in concert with each other, using big machines, and looking the worse for wear from it. True or not, we at least were to believe that no one in those still shots had hair plugs, bleached teeth, or faux tans in the manner of our vice president, who tries so hard to be an oh-so-authentic “Joey.” In that regard, Clint Eastwood’s resonance hinges in part on the fact that his lined and craggy face does not resemble what has happened to Sylvester Stallone’s, and he did not engage in the sort of embarrassing, obsequious fawning about George Bush that a Chris Rock or Jamie Foxx has monotonously done about Barack Obama. Americans still admire authenticity, and that too explains the later YouTube popularity of the commercial. When the Obama team released pictures of Obama “skeet shooting” or with a furrowed brow following in real time the ongoing shooting and killing in Benghazi, we knew it was all show, all Dukakis in a tank. The only thing worse than being cut off from the premodern world is faking participation in it.
I suppose the images resonated in 2013 in a way that they would have seemed passé in 1950, but not just because farmers then were about 15% of the population and now make up less than 1%, and so currently earn the added intrigue accorded to vanishing in the manner of the rhino or blue whale. The commercial instead was mostly a hit because of the sharp contrast, not just with the Petronian spectacle of today’s Super Bowl extravaganza, but also with the general tenor of the times of 2013 in particular.