The City upon a Hill at Halftime: Detroit, Unions, and the USA

Clint Eastwood in Chrysler Super Bowl commercial

Image Credit: Screenshot from YouTube

While baseball is more my sport, I haven’t missed watching the Super Bowl for the last couple of years. If nothing else, I enjoy analyzing the Super Bowl commercials—and this year’s Chrysler commercial featuring Clint Eastwood presents an irresistible opportunity to discuss some interesting controversies. Both conservative critics like Karl Rove and the Wall Street Journal’s Steve Goldstein and liberal ones like Michael Moore and Charles Mudede have read the commercial as promoting Obama’s reelection campaign. The ad’s copy and visuals directly connect the fates of Detroit and the auto industry with larger economic and political trends, as you can see:

One of the commercial’s early phrases, “It’s halftime in America,” sounds very similar to the phrase from Reagan’s famous ad, “It’s morning again in America.” However, the commercial’s tone is not nearly as triumphal. While both ads feature morning scenes, Chrysler’s surrounds theirs with images of a grizzled Clint Eastwood walking down a dark alley, his face only visible at the commercial’s end. The bright daylight surrounding a man sitting on the edge of his bed is juxtaposed with a commentary track that declares, “People are out of work and they’re hurting, and they’re all wondering what they’re going to do to make a comeback.” The commercial attempts to play on the kairos of both the Super Bowl halftime and America’s economic recovery. And while the Giants and Eli Manning managed to come back after the football game resumed, I want to think about how both the commercial and the conversation surrounding it think through the “comebacks” of Detroit and the American automotive industry at large.

Flag for the City of Detroit, Michigan

Image Credit: Screenshot from YouTube

The Chrysler ad’s argument invites America, in the midst of economic crisis, to look to Detroit and companies like Chrysler for inspiration. The commercial’s copy makes the argument explicit:

The people of Detroit know a little something about this. They almost lost everything. But we all pulled together. Now Motor City is fighting again. I’ve seen a lot of tough eras, a lot of downturns in my life, times when we didn’t understand each other. It seems that we’ve lost our heart at times.  The fog of division, discord, and blame made it hard to see what lies ahead.  But after those trials, we all rallied around what was right and acted as one, because that’s what we do. We find a way through tough times—and if we can’t find a way, then we make one. All that matters know is what’s ahead: how do we come from behind? How do we come together, and how do we win?  Detroit’s showing us it can be done. And what’s true about them is true about all of us.

The visuals double the words: instead of a waving American flag, we see a flag for the city of Detroit. The images of happy industry are those of African-American men in a plant, wearing safety goggles and manufacturing shiny cars. At the commercial’s end, we see all of the people who were getting ready for the day now relying on Chrysler cars to transport wood to construction sites or children to school.

Images from Chrysler factory in Detroit

Image Credit: Screenshot from YouTube

While both Eastwood himself and Chrysler’s marketing chief Olivier Francois have explicitly denied that the commercial promotes Obama, the copy and accompanying video do implicitly argue that Detroit’s rebirth—enabled by the auto industry bailout—presents a good model for the rest of the country. The warmly-lit unionized auto plants are directly contrasted with images of television news talking heads and protesting Wisconsin union members, in which cold colors predominate. Even the black-and-white pictures of families and firemen visually set these people apart from the others, turning them into models for the rest of us. Detroit thus takes from the rest of America its role as “the city upon a hill.” It is the reborn economy that America can follow, through the purchase and support of American labor and American-built cars.

Image of union protests in Wisconsin

Image Credit: Screenshot from YouTube

However, this message contrasts strongly with common images of Detroit as a ruined and ruin-city, and conservatives are reacting strongly against it. Clint Eastwood, the paragon of a rugged, silent conservative American masculinity, is now being attacked as “a spokesman for welfare queen Chrysler.” While Chrysler’s slogan, “imported from Detroit,” attempts to play with the stereotype that imported cars like Toyota and Honda are superior, some commentators are reading it as “the signature Obama haughtiness” which prefers a European socialism to American capitalism. In a political moment where Republicans reject unions as anti-American (despite a long history to the contrary), this commercial directly challenges these scripts.

Image of union workers in morning sun

Image Credit: Screenshot from YouTube

It’s interesting to contrast this year’s commercial with the 2011 Chrysler Super Bowl commercial featuring Eminem, which also embraced this slogan, incorporated some of the same images of Detroit’s ruin, and also boldly proclaimed Detroit’s identity as “the Motor City” where “this is what we do.”

The important difference here, I speculate, is that the older commercial merely tries to reverse an association between Detroit and cheap cars—pairing the language of “luxury” with images of grand old Detroit buildings—this year’s commercial dares to proclaim Detroit more than just “a town that’s been to hell and back,” but a model for America’s future progress. The language of American exceptionalism is frequently and commonly invoked in advertisements, but what makes American exceptional and what parts of America can be exceptional or “American” is always heavily negotiated and contested during an election year. This commercial and its connected visuals (like the map on YouTube which shows people watching the ad across the country, drawing lines of connection between the viewer and the USA) argue powerfully for “the values we hold in Detroit … and the values we think our customers identify with,” but those values implicit can’t be uncritically accepted during an election year when Republicans are campaigning against a President they call “almost un-American.” Likewise, a commercial that seeks to conflate the “they” of Detroit with the “we” of America can’t be accepted by politicians who explicitly rejected the auto industry bailout. This commercial—unintentionally or not—signals the beginning of not just the Super Bowl’s second half, but also the contentious election season ahead.

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