Recently I read (in an essay by Daniel Albert) that the cultural critic Henri Lefebvre "labeled the the car 'l'objet-roi': the king of all objects."
Though not a driver myself, I can certainly see his point. Car ads not only dominate (along with electronic devices) much of our commercial space, but also carry an intense degree of cultural symbolism. They seem to mean everything.
Check out this spot for Chrysler, which originally aired during the Golden Globes:
What struck me initially about this spot, in addition to the beautiful film work, was the contrast it offered to the new Audi spot (covered in the last post here). Audi told its story in futuristic language: "luxury has progressed" it argued, thanks to the breathtaking technical innovation of its design.
Looking to the Hollywood glamour of the late 40s and early 50s for inspiration, Chrysler is concerned with more poetic than scientific or utilitarian values. The spot reminds me of the show Madmen -- since it populates its stylish images with what look to me like contemporary people playing dress-up.
This look and feel is associated with a more prosperous America. Here's the remarkable script (intoned by Adrian Brody):
"Whatever happened to style? Where has the glamour gone? Wasn't too long ago, America had it Looking and feeling like a million bucks. It was practically our birthright. We didn't race from A to B. We cruised. Going for a drive was a big deal. And when we arrived...we arrived in style. At Chrysler, we believe it's time to get it back. To regain the style, the cache, the confidence. It's time, once again, to arrive in style."
Let the Middle-East Be Your Guide...
Though the spot looks to the past for its images, I think it would be a mistake to read it as mere nostalgia. It's true, futuristic techno-hype is the biggest game in town right now, but the power of the purely aesthetic side to commercial culture still packs a tremendous punch.
I found dramatic proof of this recently in a book by Virginia Postrel, called The Substance of Style. Postrel tells us that when the Taliban fell in Afghanistan,
"...Afghan men lined up at barbershops to have their beards shaved off. Women painted their nails with once-forbidden polish. Formerly clandestine beauty salons opened in prominent locations. Men traded postcards of beautiful Indian movie stars, and thronged to buy imported TVs, VCRs, and videotapes. Even burka merchants diversified their wares, adding colors like brown, peach, and green to the blue and off-white dictated by the Taliban's whip-wielding virtue police." (ix)
Further, as Postrel points out, since these people were exposed to virtually no advertising or marketing, it's hard to argue their desires were generated by some sort of consumer brainwashing. Instead, she reads the need for style, i.e., for everyday aesthetics, as basic to human anthropology.
And since Postrel, and every other public commentator nowadays for that matter, interprets U.S. culture trends by referring to what's going on in the Middle-East, let me jump on the bandwagon and do the same in reading this spot.
Part of what makes dreams of a renewed prosperity possible here (and the rainbow booming through the sky at the end), is the first thaw in a rigid type of U.S. ideology: Market Fundamentalism. Chrysler is doing better, in no small part, because their fate was not left to "market forces." They got a $12.5 billion bailout, courtesy of "big government" in 2009. Thus their hopes are contingent, for the moment at least, on a mixed (or Keynesian) economic approach.
The brand explores the whole idea of "recovery" even more forcefully in another spot, which is airing concurrently with this one and features Eminem as spokesperson. More on that one in the next post.
As far as this particular commercial goes, though, I have to admit that I'm still not quite sure why Chrysler took the risk of appearing "old-school" -- by alluding so heavily to its (admittedly stylish) history. Anyone have thoughts on this?