Sorry Boss, You Were Duped

I’m talking about your Super Bowl commercial. 

Yes, I appreciate the message.   After four years of chaos, the “Reunited States of America” is a soothing sentiment. 

But as your two-minute mini-epic rolled across my screen last night, something didn’t settle right.  

It dawned on me only slowly who I was listening to.  “Wait… I know that voice… who is that? Whoa! It’s Springsteen. Doing a commercial? Have the end-times arrived? The same guy who wouldn’t let Peter Bogdanovich use his recordings in a movie about a true-life character who loved his music – that guy was now doing a Super Bowl commercial?  

By the time I recognized the dulcet voiceover, I had already seen the Jeep logo and the unmistakeable Jeep grille and I  knew who the commercial was for.  Those frames were followed by more stirring, folksy images of The Boss in his cowboy hat, riding his Jeep around wintry midwest land-and-city-scapes (did anybody stop to wonder who was that crazy dude riding around in the open Jeep in the dead of frozen-fucking-winter?) all the while invoking comforting sentiments about “common ground” and “the middle.” 

The spot ended and I was still trying to figure out what I had just witnessed when I recognized the source of my agitation.

Oh yeah. 

Cognitive dissonance. 

There is more going on here than meets the eye or ear. 

For starters: “Jeep” is a revered  American brand.  We are not reminded of that until the very end of the spot, when a simple trio of graphic images informs us that this year is the 80th anniversary of the Jeep brand. 

The Jeep brand is only 9 years older than Bruce Springsteen

 

The “jeep” has a long and storied history.  

All those SUVs we see on the roads today can trace their origins back to the opening days of World  War II, when the Army gave a company called Willys Overland less than two months to produce a prototype of the first four-wheel drive vehicle ‘General Purpose’ vehicle, or the “G.P.”  G.P. – get it? G…P…. Jeep.  That light, utilitarian vehicle became a staple during the War and in every war movie since.  Hell, my parent’s first ‘car’ was a Jeep. 

Harvey and the Army surplus jeep he named after my Aunt Elinor, whose nickname was “Bumps.” Milton, NJ ca. 1948

Now, I’m gonna take a little space to confess to a bit of a mixed relationship with Bruce Springsteen. 

I like his music as much as any red-blooded American Boomer, though I’m not as obsessed with as his most rabid fans.  My sentiments toward “The Boss” are more personal and rooted in our common backgrounds 

He grew up in essentially the same part of New Jersey that I did.  His home town of Freehold was the seat of Monmouth, the county on the Jersey shore where I spent the 11 years off my childhood.  And when I hear about his days at the Stone Pony or see the title of his first album, ‘Greetings from Asbury Park,’  I conjure fond recollections of those carefree days when my grandparents took me to ice skate or ride the carousel at the Casino on the Asbury Park pier.

Nowadays, when people ask where I’m from I tell them “I’m from Springsteen Country – Monmouth County, New Jersey.” 

But wait, there’s more: When my family moved closer to New York, I found myself going to junior and senior high with a kid named Max Weinberg.  Max was a drummer.  His band – The Epsilons –  was the band my friends’ bands were always losing out to in competitions for school dance gigs.  It’s no surprise that  Max went on to become the drummer in Bruce Springsteen’s E-Street Band, and perhaps one of the 10 or 20 most famous drummers of the late 20th and early 21st century.   When he shows up on TeeVee I think “I know that guy…”, and he is the most sought-after figure at our high school reunions.  Everybody has a Max story. 

Max Weinberg, slayer of teenage band ambitions.

As for Springsteen’s music, I truly enjoy the highlights like “Born to Run” and “The Rising” – and ignore the low-lights (not that there are really all that many).  I’ve seen him in concert three times, but always found those big arena shows, while full of buoyant  energy, kind of  frustrating. Invariably the sound was distorted to the point that lyrics are unintelligible, though I observed that most of the people around me didn’t care because they know the lyrics by heart anyway.  I do not know all the lyrics by heart.  Not even “Born to Run.”

Nevertheless, I have all the requisite respect and admiration for Bruce Springsteen’s artistry, his integrity, his honesty, and the way he has turned his life into a vehicle of phenomenally successful commercial art. There is no denying that “Born in the USA” offered the perfect counterpoint to Reagan’s union-busting and tax-breaking in the 1980s. 

So at first blush, it seems entirely fitting that one American icon would endorse another in a wide-screen ode to National Unity. 

And it grieves me slightly to confront the nagging sense that something is awry here. 

It took The Google and Wikipedia to get beneath the surface of this seemingly benign two minutes of Sportsball Interruptus. 

Now I am beginning to understand the cognitive dissonance. 

And once again, “the medium is the message” (#TMITM). 

In the piece that I posted last week about the Insurrection and the Inauguration, I referred back to a seminal text to explain the difference between “content” and “conduit” – the “message” and “the medium.”  Then, quoting from Nicholas Carr’s 2010 book The Shallows, I tried to articulate the distinction: 

…whenever a new medium comes along, people naturally get caught up in…the “content.” The technology disappears behind whatever flows through it – facts, entertainment, instructions, conversation…

“Our focus on a medium’s content can blind us to [its] deep effects.  We’re too busy being dazzled or disturbed by the programming to notice what’s going on inside our heads

That why I think The Boss was duped: dazzled by his ability to create brilliant content, Bruce may have lost sight of the larger context. The content, in other words, got lost in the medium, which in turn conveys the underlying message. 

Poking around the web last night after the game, I found this New York Times account of the spot’s origins and development: 

When [marketing exec Olivier] François received the script for an early version of the Super Bowl ad, he sent it to [Springsteen’s manager Jon] Landau. Within 24 hours, he had a virtual handshake deal with Mr. Springsteen… Mr. Landau said the Boss had created the ad with his own creative team. “Bruce made the film exactly as he wanted to, with no interference at all from Jeep,” he said.

Fair – and effective – enough.  

Still, despite the uplifting sentiments expressed in high-def and surround sound in my living room, something about this spot left me scratching my head. 

For starters – and as I learned from the Times – who even knows that the iconic American “Jeep” brand is now owned by a multinational conglomerate based in the Netherlands called Stellantis?   

Does it not seem at all ironic that this poetic call for American Unity comes from a company based in Amsterdam???  A company that we have never even heard of?  

Stellantis? What the hell does that even mean?

 

That’s why, despite all of his admirable good intentions, I don’t think even Bruce realizes the underlying dynamic in this seemingly benign endorsement. 

What Bruce missed is that a message like this does not get through mainstream media – it certainly doesn’t merit the many millions it takes to air a two-minute spot on the Super Bowl – unless it serves the imperatives of the companies that are paying for it. 

The content of the spot may be national reunification, but the medium – and thus the subliminal message – is monolithic multinational corporate capitalism.  The very forces that eviscerated the working and middle classes that Bruce Springsteen has championed for nearly fifty years are now using his voice to appeal for “unity” – not only to sell more Jeeps, but to quietly mollify us. 

Because buried in that message is our acceptance of their corporate dominance of our political economy.

While you are comforted in a warm, emotional appeal, please ignore the fact that companies like Stellantis are contributing millions of dark dollars to cap the minimum wage, secure tax cuts for the rich, turn a blind eye to the environment, deny health care to millions, and ultimately perpetuate the same forces of oligarchy, discrimination, racism, patriarchy,  etc etc. that Bruce Springsteen and Co. have crusaded against or nearly five decades. 

With our eyes and ears we see and hear “The Boss” soothingly intoning his call for ‘reunification’ – but what’s going on inside our heads is the subliminal message that invisible, heretofore nameless multinational corporations are looking out for us and trying to bring us together.  

Don’t buy it. 

The people that own “Jeep” are not your friends. They are not your neighbors, and they don’t care if you get another $1,400 in pandemic relief – or that somebody in your family has died from the pestilence.  

They just want you to think warmly about their brand, and accept them as our benevolent corporate overlords.

I don’t mean to discourage viewers from enjoying the spot; if you found it touching or moving or otherwise meaningful, good for you.  I was moved by it, too. But also unnerved.

I might be overstating the case to suggest that by serving his own purpose while serving the sponsor’s that Bruce was “duped.”  I’d like to think he took all the angles into account in his calculations.  He seems smart that way.

Still, they cleverly waited until deep in the 4th quarter, when the outcome of the game was already certain, when we were all beer-buzzed in a cheese-and-crackers coma to present their message – subliminal or otherwise.

And they got Bruce Springsteen to go along with it.

 

No, really… who drives an uncovered Jeep around Kansas in the dead of winter?

 



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Paul Schatzkin