It’s Super Bowl time again. As this column is written, no one has a clue which teams will be playing. But we all know it doesn’t matter. The sporting event now serves only to bookend the half-time show and interrupt the ads. In fact, the National Football League even offers post-game opportunities to view the ads for people who want a rerun. The triumph of marketing over substance is one of the main ways in which the Super Bowl has come to embody and celebrate the true character of American society.
At this point, our American lives exist mainly to provide a context for advertising. It’s on our clothes, in our children’s schoolrooms, on the back of our cars, beaming at us in the gas station and supermarket, playing over the radio, droning from the television, popping out of our computers. And always the message is the same: “Define yourself by purchasing something.”
The triumph of advertising in American culture is so complete that commercials are now viewed as a sort of alternative medium for artistic expression and social messages. For instance, obscure indie-rock bands that could never get a break on the radio can place their songs in a Volkswagen commercial. The use of social uplift to sweeten the ad-man’s pitch is as old as Coke’s “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing” and those Benetton “United Colors” ads of decades past, and it’s as recent as the Latino-themed “hybrid” ads that simultaneously pitched the 2006 Toyota Prius and the virtues of multiculturalism.
Those two trends came together during another great sport-themed advertising event—the 2006 World Series. All five games of the series were saturated with an ad for the Chevy Silverado pickup truck that featured images of Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., Vietnam, and 9/11, all to the soundtrack of “Our Country,” the first single off the album Freedom’s Road by John Mellencamp. The commercials were part of a multimedia campaign with the slogan: “Our country: our truck.”
The song itself is a decent, B-grade, mid-tempo rocker featuring appeals for community and tolerance. It’s the kind of stuff Mellencamp, a Farm Aid organizer and Iraq war opponent, has purveyed for the past 25 years. The chorus—“from the East coast to the West coast … this is our country”—pays deliberate homage to Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land.” But to paraphrase the late, great Waylon Jennings, “I don’t think Woody done it this a’way.” For one thing, Woody sang for the United Auto Workers, not for their bosses.
THE MELLENCAMP AD did not come as a great surprise. The 2006 Major League Baseball All-Star game featured repeated airings of another Silverado ad that used Steve Earle’s recording of “The Revolution Starts Now.” Earle identifies himself as anti-capitalist and his political identity is central to his work. Earle’s commercial was a one-day, one-time-only event. And—if you use need-based ethics—he is not as rich as Mellencamp, but it was still a shock when he crossed that line.
One has to wonder if it is any longer worth the trouble to draw a distinction between advertising and non-commercial content. If every human creation exists to be sold at a profit, then why should only the unprincipled artists get paid? If Mick Jagger and Keith Richards can roll in the commercial dollars, then certainly Steve Earle and John Mellencamp deserve some, too.
Yet, even at this late date, I can’t quite accept that proposition. My heart and head tell me that the commodification of all creation and culture is at the root of most social evils—from global warming to latchkey kids. And the chief means of commodification today is advertising. The Supreme Court may protect it as free speech, but advertising is not just another form of communication. It is covert, unlabeled propaganda that makes us accept corporate power as inevitable and consumption as a healthy way of life.
When a John Mellencamp or Steve Earle rents a song out to General Motors, he is no longer an artist speaking to and for the people who make and buy Chevy trucks. He is instead, at least for a while, a cog in GM’s corporate strategy that for the last three decades has consisted of maximizing profits by laying off workers, demanding givebacks from those who remain, offshoring every possible function, resisting attempts to replace the fossil fuel economy, and then appealing to patriotism to con Americans into buying their products anyway.
As Steve Earle himself once sang, “Come back, Woody Guthrie.” Please.
Danny Duncan Collum, a Sojourners contributing writer, teaches writing at Kentucky State University in Frankfort, Kentucky.