For the most part, the trained Polar Bear in this spot (created by TBWA/Chiat Day, Los Angeles) is a veteran of movies whose name is "Aggie." Her image is also supplemented with nature film footage and computer generation. (For the full behind-the-scenes story, see the video at the very end of this post.)
Despite the good intentions toward the planet's future here, I found myself ambivalent about how the bear was used. It seemed a bit too corny. Charles Krome, at Autosavant, articulated some of what bothered me:
"I really feel kind of sorry for the bear... Not only does he [sic] have to deal with a shrinking habitat, but he's also stuck into one of the cheesiest commercials currently on the air today..."
Heidegger and the Bear
My own unease also reminded me of something I read by psychedelic culture critic Daniel Pinchbeck. In discussing the often troubled relationship between technology and nature, he cites the philosopher Heidegger's famed "The Question Concerning Technology." According to Pinchbeck's summation of this essay, "technology ... is based on an ordering of reality that turns everything -- including people -- into a 'standing reserve,' a resource to be utilized for rationalized ends." (p. 105)
When nature and people are looked upon primarily for their utilitarian value, according to Pinchbeck, it leads to their exploitation. In terms of ecology, this theoretically enables a careless use of our natural habitat -- the result of which the Polar Bear in the spot is plagued with.
At the same time, though, by turning this predator into, essentially, a Teddy Bear, the TV commercial re-enacts exactly what it wants to criticize, does it not? The bear's personality, via its taming, has been re-engineered for the practical end of rendering it suitable for films and TV commercials like this one. Its "bearness" now made bearable, is showcased in a televisual zoo -- or better, a circus -- for us to enjoy. You end up feeling sorry both for the destruction of its environment and its own wildness.
Of course, perhaps what gave rise to my discontent here was the now distant spectacle of my own socialization -- reflected back to me in a white fur mirror. But at the very least, this all suggested to me that there's a residue of civilizing violence at work whenever the natural is transformed into the cute.
May Swenson, Teddy Roosevelt and the Bear
A poem by May Swenson captures the (repressed?) violence I sense here perfectly. Titled "Teddy's Bears", it seems to take place in a house where the great white imperialist/hunter, Teddy Roosevelt, grew up. The speaker offers a visual tour of this abode, filled with dead, trophied, taxidermied, and stuffed animals -- the most prominent of which are bears:
"Great and small furs, belly down, flat on the floor,
teeth and claws real, fully dimensional, as if clicking.
By the bed, this head: a lump with leather nose,
garnet eyes, jaws open, saber canines exposed.
And the rug in the gunroom on the third floor
is the biggest bear you've ever seen. Hod-sized head
with the round ears nearly worn away, wide goldbrown
body. Down the hall, across the railing of a doorway
where the plaque says PLAYROOM, are three Teddy Bears,
small, medium and large, at tea around a table..."
The poem/scene concludes by describing the huge portrait of TR himself that watches sternly over the whole collection.
The connection Swenson makes here is that the same person (our "conservation President") one of the original "cute toys" was named after, killed a lot of bears himself. The legend of how the Teddy Bear was invented "bears" this out.
It seems, according to some accounts, that during a bear hunt, TR's posse captured a cub and tied it to a tree. TR refused to shoot it, reasoning that he only killed game that had a fighting chance. His "nonviolence", at least from our modern perspective, then, was rather qualified. But the tale, memorialized by cartoons, inspired a small shopkeeper named Morris Michtom to rename two toy bears in his shop window (that his wife Rose had sewn) "Teddy Bears."
With this backdrop in mind, it's no wonder I found the way Nissan's new electric car is portrayed on the Leaf's website a whole lot more appealing. There, the story told, via testimonials, is of its sleek design, easy handling and speed -- a sort of friendly, hi-tech device. Rather than cute, it's cool and futuristic.
But, in an era of Mama Grizzlies, cute may indeed be the new face of capitalism. In which case, maybe my preference for the future now simply means I'm getting old.
Behind-the-Scenes Story on Making of Nissan Leaf Commercial: