Codebreaking: Imported from the Rust Belt

Posted on by Pastabagel and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

All three ads tell a decidedly post-crash story. What is the story they are telling? How is the story told? Consider the signs (it helps to turn off the sound): dilapidated buildings, obstructed flags, obscured parades, closeups of large hands, arms, and backs. Labor, physical work. Black and white, and desaturated color. Old footage inter-cut with new. Railroads. Power lines. Factories. Steel mills.

Remember that advertising is how industry represents itself. How it represents to you its relationship to capital, labor, consumers, the State, and the environment. What parts of the relationship are represented the most? What is represented the least? What is absent?

Are you moved by the ads, and the story they tell? Why?

Would you have been moved in 2005? What changed?
 

Related posts:

  1. Codebreaking: Diet Coke’s “Stay Extraordinary”
  2. The iPad and the Death of Techno-fetishism
  3. Medical journal bans pharma ads

23 Responses to Codebreaking: Imported from the Rust Belt

  1. kataclysm says:

    I’m not a manual laborer, I’m conspicuously overeducated, and I have no claim to any sort of working-class identity. But I am a Rust Belt native. I grew up in Troy, NY. I went to college outside of Cleveland. My husband was from southeast Michigan. I now live in Pittsburgh. Everywhere I have ever lived has been post-crash and steadily declining for my entire life (I was born in the eighties), with the possible exception of Pittsburgh. And I have to say, all those commercials are pitch-perfect. I’m a little overly-attuned to the post-apocalyptic Rust Belt aesthetic: shit, I have been known to get all teary-eyed over empty railyards, rusted tanks, and the ruins of the Michigan Central Station. I want so badly to believe in the reversal of time, thermodynamics, and fortune that I fall for those damn commercials every time. I wonder if it plays the same for other Americans who are not from around here? I suspect that it sure as hell resonates now, and that it would not have done so pre-2007. Maybe it plays even more strongly for non-Rust Belters: grow up in an environment of hard times and scarcity, and a vague sense of unease is the norm, so you become accustomed to constant minor crises and a somewhat reactionary mode of living. Grow up in an environment of relative ease and job security, and hard times and scarcity must be downright terrifying. You probably start looking for reassurance wherever you can find it. You probably hope that this isn’t the “new normal” and fear that it is.

    Help us tell ourselves the stories we want to hear, and we’ll gladly buy whatever you’re selling. The Detroit auto industry uses the beautiful rubble of Detroit to spin a narrative about its own corporate rebirth from the ashes, with a side dish of proletarian solidarity. Levi’s uses Braddock, PA as a backdrop for a story about how “we are all workers,” and we not only see Levi’s as an emblem of hardworking underdog Americana, but we end up identifying with the whole mess, conflating what we see as scrappy underdog working-class types (what the previous century’s robber barons might have called the “deserving poor”) with a corporation and some clever marketing types (they’re workers too! Everyone’s a worker! I can be a proletarian hero and a tough scrappy underdog too if my ass is in a pair of Levi’s, even if I’m decidedly upper-class!)

    [Interesting digression/parallel: Braddock itself (or at least some of its residents and its mayor) uses some beehives and a tattooed mayor to tell its own story of rebirth, pitched perfectly for the consumers of The Atlantic and The New York Times.]

    It doesn’t matter in the end how true our narrative is, it doesn’t matter whether the auto lobby’s own shortsightedness contributed to killing Detroit, it doesn’t matter whether corporate greed contributed to the crash that the commercials are trying to get us to believe we’re recovered/recovering from (let’s increase that consumer confidence any old way we can!), it doesn’t matter whether Braddock is a happy colony of artists and farmers or a crime-ridden place with a sprinkling of terrified pioneer-wannabes from Brooklyn. We see the signifiers, we ignore whether the thing signified even exists, we create our own narrative (and after all, we get more attached to the narratives we help write than the ones we are told), and we forget the past. We forget what caused the disasters that make a narrative of rebirth compelling or even necessary. We blind ourselves so that we can keep buying those stories, literally and figuratively. It makes us feel better. And if we feel better, things are better, right?

    • Pastabagel says:

      Maybe it plays even more strongly for non-Rust Belters: grow up in an environment of hard times and scarcity, and a vague sense of unease is the norm, so you become accustomed to constant minor crises and a somewhat reactionary mode of living. Grow up in an environment of relative ease and job security, and hard times and scarcity must be downright terrifying.

      Great point. All over post-80s suburban sprawl, malls are riddled with shuttered storefronts, when in the past the rule was 100% occupancy. I think the unease and anxiety over knowing that everyone else acknowledges that things are worse allows the ads to resonate. Because you’re right, the fact is that rust-belt America declined with the steel and auto industries in the 70’s and 80’s. But now the decline is on the retail side, not just the production side, and everyone can see it. And because everyone can see it, it can be exploited.

      • kataclysm says:

        But now the decline is on the retail side, not just the production side, and everyone can see it. And because everyone can see it, it can be exploited.

        That’s an interesting way of looking at it, almost the mirror image of my perspective: because everyone can see it, nobody can sweep it under the rug any more. And because nobody can sweep it under the rug anymore, the cleverest strategy becomes to exploit it.

        The Rust Belt is the easiest signifier and possibly the safest: for most Americans, Rust Belt symbols are a comfortable distance from home. The big steel mills, the workers, the auto plants are all part of the canon of Americana. But, at the same time, most Americans are not industrial workers; we started sending those jobs overseas before I was born. The emotional impact would be completely different if you showed a bunch of foreclosed homes in a subdivision, some unemployed middle managers, and a boarded-up shopping center: the images would be way too close to home, because it would be lived experience, not mythologizing. It would make people angry, not induce them to buy consumer goods. These Rust Belt commercials are actually kind of fetishistic; the viewer is intended to identify with the images at some level, but on another level, the post-industrial landscapes and the workers themselves are very much Other.

  2. BluegrassJack says:

    Workers of the World, Unite!!

    The Dictatorship of the Proletariat is being implemented coast to coast as we speak. Rush wasn’t far off in nicknaming Detroit, New Fallujah.

    You can tell from those quick-cut images of the multi-colored Proles at hard-labor in the Levi and Chrysler (Chrysler & Jeep) mills that those salt of the earth Workers will bring a bountiful harvest of “new normal” productivity to the masses.

    Those ads are professionally made. They do not persuade anyone over 30 years of age to buy the product. In fact, there is a definite goal of excluding any consumer over 30.

  3. Comus says:

    A quick note, I might come back later with a proper view. First impression is that this is clever abuse. Especially the cars they are selling are aimed at middle class, so using the proletarian romantic as a selling point is rather unsettling. It does at least two things.

    Firstly, it works on the responsibility of the possible consumer. These people have made this, and it’s your job to buy this before all turns to rubble and protest. You are responsible for the working america. We are the working America. (ie. we are not the greedy captialists aiming for profit).

    Secondly it works to keep the proletariat in order, the ad portrays the company as a friendly, worried_for_the_working_men solidary sort of thing. It puts the people making the cars in the centre (not the engineers, designers and the like, which used to be the norm). It creates an air of “we feel your pain”. It gains sympathy for the company, instead of noting how the company has failed it’s workers.

    They are all made to view the company as similar to the working, normal man. Yet they are aimed at the middle class. This can be interpreted as a sig of appeasement to the proletarian revolt, or as a clever switching of semiotics. Yeah, it may seem I’m upper middle class, but I drive a car that symbolises the workers struggle. I’m one of you, sticking it out to the man. I am solidarity becoma flesh.

  4. michaelhockenhull says:

    Coming at the videos with a European bias here.

    All of them come off as distinctly American. The connection to the ‘proletariat’ mentioned in both posts above did not really strike me however. Instead, the Chrysler commercial reminded me decidedly of Atlas Shrugged, which features a wholly different type of worker.

    Chrysler video: Focus on Detroit identity, specific mix of black and white. Cultural icon: Eminem, Gospel (?), landmarks. There is a double feature of marking the care as a luxury good because it is from Detroit and marking Detroit as a brand of luxury goods.

    Cherokee video: Focus on a more national, American identity (so it seems). Broader sweep: What we make, makes us. Emphasizing traits associated with America: Quality, entrepreneurship, historical footage (Wright and WW2).

    Levi’s video: Underlying ‘frontier’ theme. Jeans tie well in with this. Workers are all pretty decent-looking and diverse cast. As mentioned above, appealing to the middle to upper-middle class segment (?).

    Each video in essence harnesses the idea of American identity as relates to hard work and quality. But applies it with a different inflection (local, national/historical, frontier).

    Nowhere to be seen is the capitalist.

    • Guy Fox says:

      “The connection to the ‘proletariat’ mentioned in both posts above did not really strike me however.” vs.
      “Nowhere to be seen is the capitalist.”
      -I’m not sure how to reconcile these two statements. They weren’t really showing Maoist peasants, and you’re right that they’re not only omitting ‘capitalists’ but seem to be actively avoiding them, so the proletariat is kind of what’s left, and that’s what they focus on.

      • michaelhockenhull says:

        Well an absence of one does not (strictly) imply the presence of the other in my opinion.

        For example: in “Atlas Shrugged,” a novel by Ayn Rand, hard work/industrial type work is emphasized but not linked to socialism in any way. In fact it is its opposite.

        To me the commercials speak primarily of an American heritage and working culture. This does not really equate to ‘proletariat’ in the socialist or Marxist sense.

        But then, maybe this points to the difference between an American and a European perspective on the matter. It seems that these images code for socialism or ‘proletariat’ to most other commentators here (whom I assume are American) while they code more for American culture and values to me.

        Given that the commercials are directed at the American market, I concede that the ‘proletariat’ angle is the one that makes most sense.

      • Pastabagel says:

        What is presented is strictly work-to-consumer who is also presumed to be worker as well. (“what WE make..”)

        These commercials are interesting to me, because they all seem to acknowledge that the country has fallen into decay and disrepair while assiduously avoiding any mention of how or why (outsourcing, cheaper overseas labor, union intransigence, corporate indolence, etc). In a way they sell a dream of being a worker, a doer, and a builder, when in reality most viewers of the ads do not have these jobs.

        They also completely ignore the constant tension between labor an management that prevailed during the heyday of industrial towns like Braddock and Detroit.

        A key part of nostalgia is forgetting the past so that you can project present-day fantasies onto its relics.

        • CubaLibre says:

          A key part of nostalgia is forgetting the past so that you can project present-day fantasies onto its relics.

          Just ask the Tea Party.

        • CubaLibre says:

          To get more specific: nostalgia for a lost empire is the essence of fascism. You can make your own Tea Party connections from there.

          These commercials aren’t fascistic, though; they’re not nostalgic for empire, but for a kind of mixed-economy Great Society circa 1960 (as opposed to the Tea Party’s 1860). What this kind of society means for the US’ international standing isn’t even on the radar.

        • philtrum says:

          They also completely ignore the constant tension between labor an management that prevailed during the heyday of industrial towns like Braddock and Detroit.

          I agree. This to me (another non-American) is what is “American” about these ads. Proletarians without struggle. There’s no sticking it to The Man; there’s no Man, period. We’re all just workers, and okay, some of us make 500 times the salary of others, but it doesn’t matter, because we all take pride in our work.

  5. Guy Fox says:

    All three present a distinctly socialist aesthetic (industrial/manufacturing work, monumental statues, trades, virtuous humility, etc.), but they certainly can’t come out and openly praise socialism, so they have to spin it. First, they do this with a heavy dose of nationalism: American is a city on a hill, clouds are clearing, and we’re all privileged to be a part of it. Beyond that, there’s the class dynamic (sorry to whack y’all over the head with tired tropes): the hard-up working class types, whether democritan or republicrat, will get the message: “America is strong because of us. Whatever catastrophe the suits have caused, we will rebuild it, and it will be better than ever. Yay us! Yay America!”. The suits, on the other hand, get a different but still appealing ‘bipartisan’ message: “You’ve heard that America is screwed because we don’t make anything anymore (e.g. http://www.economist.com/node/18484080?story_id=18484080), and China is taking over? Well, that’s flapdoodle/a pernicious oversimplification. There are honorable targets for your disposable income in the form of American products! You can atone by supporting American industry and the values that made our nation great! And it’s no harder than opting for a Chrysler over a BMW or for Levi’s over D&G! Buy now!” (Sure, Chrysler is now Italian, owned by F-ix I-t A-gain T-ony, and Levi’s hasn’t stitched in anywhere near the continental US since Dan Quayle was a contender, but that would cloud the narrative, wouldn’t it?)

    These are socialist messages framed for the broadest possible appeal in the chosen market.

    • Pastabagel says:

      So does this mean that these companies recognize that socialist ideas may be more appealing to the general public than 5-10 years ago?

      • BluegrassJack says:

        As I said above, those ads are targeted to people under 30 years of age. Such people have watched government at all levels steadily encroach on individual liberty. Many of the targets have been educated life-long in public (government) schools that emphasize the importance and value of such encroachment, while ignoring all the downsides.

        So, yes, the targeted ones often accept socialist ideas as beneficial to themselves and to society. However, regarding General Motors and Chrysler, government’s [partial] ownership of those previously-private corporations is fascist, not socialist. The current federal government takes some strategies from Chinese restaurant column A and some from column B, but the end-game is weakening America’s standing in the world.

        It’s valuable to have non-Americans comment on posts to this blog, since their viewpoints give an alternate interpretation to the opinions of Yanks.

        • philtrum says:

          . Such people have watched government at all levels steadily encroach on individual liberty.

          Can you explain what you mean by that? People often have wildly varying definitions of “encroaching on liberty”.

          • BluegrassJack says:

            philtrum,
            Here’s a go at answering your question. One vital aspect of liberty is the liberty to fail. That may sound strange, but it’s a given for yanks and private enterprise. A private company operated poorly is deliberately allowed to fail, without any government stepping in to prop it up. Socialist governments tend to prop up failing companies and industries that those governments favor and want to keep operating.

            At the end of his term, President GeorgeW. Bush bailed out General Motors Corporation with billions of taxpayer dollars in order to stave off its expected bankruptcy. Yanks call that, “kicking the can down the road”, meaning that in the November 2008 elections, Bush was hoping that payoff would help fellow Republicans get elected and stave off bankruptcy. That hope was partially dashed.

            The new Obama administration bailed out General Motors Corp. with more taxpayer dollars, forced the now-General Motors Company into bankruptcy, transferring its ownership to (a) the federal US government and Canadian provincial governments (where GM mills are located in Canada), (b) the United Auto Workers Health Care and retirement pension funds which bled GM dry, and (c) private bondholders of the new GM Company.

            If GM had declared bankruptcy at the end of Bush’s second term, GM could have re-negotiated its contracts with the UAW and would remain a smaller but hopefully profitable company. Labor union support of Obama was crucial to his election, and Obama was never going to allow a GM bankruptcy.

          • philtrum says:

            Fair enough, but the bailout happened only a few years ago. No one so far has “grown up with” it.

            I was born in the early days of the Reagan administration (albeit not in the U.S.), and the American labour movement has been getting weaker for most of my life. The buzzwords for large portions of my childhood were “deregulation” and “tax relief”. The U.S. government has cut back on a lot of entitlements, or at least talked about it (“ending welfare as we know it”, Social Security “reform”, etc.) Maybe you are now seeing some re-regulation, but if you take the long view, it’s just not true that government interfered less with the economy in the middle of the twentieth century.

            If you want to talk about the increase in the incarceration rate, or the erosions of protections like habeas corpus and privacy rights, then I’m with you, but I just don’t think the kind of freedom you’re talking about was more abundant in the era of “what’s good for GM is good for America”.

    • jw says:

      You are right about the socialist aesthetic, but wrong about the socialist message.

      It’s an appeal to the abstract feelings associated with socialism (working-class solidarity, communal ethics, material production as the “real” and “authentic” base of society, etc), but the “socialist” images are completely drained of any explicit political content. No one in the target audience is going to watch these ads and think that agitating against the capitalist class is a good idea.

      A sure sign that you have lost the fight is when the opposition begins to adopt your rhetoric against you.

    • jw says:

      Actually, re-reading your post, I don’t see how the interpretation you provided has anything to do with socialism. The message you describe – to celebrate the American economy by purchasing consumer products – is just about the furthest thing from socialism I can imagine.

  6. CMC says:

    That first one is the opening to The Soprano’s. (Thanks for the suggestion to keep the sound off because ‘born under a bad sign’ could play in my head the whole time.) You are driving through a crappy industrial area at first, but then there are signs of interesting things in Tony’s life, like that beautiful white house, that beautiful delicate pure healthy (Russian?) white female ice skater; that strong but mature and well dressed but walking black man (not subservient but per se but a trustable vassal), the doorman, a few glances of the leather clad white driver of the car, a church steeple, and eventually exit from the car and entrance into a sort of holy place, a respectable place.

    Remember that advertising is how industry represents itself. How it represents to you its relationship to capital, labor, consumers, the State, and the environment. What parts of the relationship are represented the most? What is represented the least? What is absent?

    The part that is represented the most is me passing all by, being in control, respected, strong, protected –especially protected, by my reputation, by the blackness of the car, by the metal, I don’t know but I got the feeling nothing and no-one was going to mess with me on this trip: the environment wasn’t going to chew me up and spit me out but that I was the free operator, the hawk, the hunter, the predator not the prey.

    But really, there weren’t that many other people –and, of course, like all car commercials, there weren’t any other cars. Were there any traffic signals? No cops. There was no exhaust, no gas, and barely anything to the operation of the vehicle.

  7. CMC says:

    And I was moved. For reasons stated above, but, I think I see your point with regard to 2005. I think I would have been less moved as then, pre economic difficulties to the extent that they exist now, I thought less of, or rather had less temptation for the life of Tony Soprano.

  8. vandal says:

    Well all I liked them the first time. But now I think it’s meant to guilt trip those capable into buying cars and jeans.

    See levis and those cars are expensive, I wouldn’t buy them because I don’t have money. Real broke americans are just buying jeans at walmart and used cars from strangers, though the commercials are appreciated. So it’s guilt tripping those with money. “Look, you weren’t hit hard like others were! They are using/making this stuff! Support them you lucky bastard! (by buying this stuff)” but subtle.

Leave a Reply