Monday, February 7, 2011

That Chrysler Super Bowl spot, which I disliked despite its undeniable craft

I can’t believe I’m going to write about a Super Bowl commercial. But I can’t get this thing out of my head.

So there it is. I know everyone saw it already, though.

“I got a question for you — what does this city know about luxury?”

It’s a powerful way to start what amounts to a minute-long visual tone poem about the city of Detroit.

The spot is evocative. But what is it evoking, exactly? It’s conjuring up the industrial heart of a city, apparently still beating, long after the money and prestige and the jobs have drained away. Those things never really mattered, it says. We’re still here. We’re still building things.

So when it asks us “What does this city know about luxury?” it’s with a biting irony. The answer seems clear enough: nothing, really. Not anymore.

“What does a town that’s been to hell and back know about the finer things in life? Well, I’ll tell you: more than most. You see, it’s the hottest fires that make the hardest steel.”

You see, Detroit still knows the most important thing about luxury: that it doesn't define them. Detroit never needed its gilded opera houses and skyscraping palaces. Detroit is about the people, and the work they did, and the things they made.

And yeah, that’s a pretty great commercial.

But then it keeps going.

“When it comes to luxury, it’s as much about where it’s from as who it’s for.”

And then there are lots of shots of chrome and gleaming black paint sliding past crumbling ruins.

And then you realize that no, this isn’t a paean to the strength and resilience of the American working man. Chrysler just doesn’t want us worrying that their cars were built in a crappy city full of poor people. You wouldn’t even guess it’s from Detroit, they’re saying. Our city forges the hardest steel. Then, we cover it in fine leather upholstery.

They don’t quite say it outright. And they certainly don’t have any problem appropriating the cultural cachet of Detroit’s long history and current troubles for their own purposes; for instance, when this half-Italian carmaker reminds us that most of us “have never even been here.”

But the message is clear enough. This isn’t a commercial about why Detroit doesn’t need luxury, or how Detroit survived without luxury, it’s about how hardscrabble Detroit builds extra-luxurious cars for rich Americans and their fat, delicate bottoms.

Detroit will never die. Detroit doesn’t need your help. Detroit doesn’t need your money.

But Fiat does. Please buy our junk.

Oh yeah, also, Eminem shows up. Why? Who knows? I guess it’s because he’s from Detroit, and he, like, scrappily fought his way to the top or something. Or maybe it’s because he’s the only person left in Detroit who could be plausibly seen driving a luxury car. Anyway, he tells us that this is the Motor City, and “this is what we do.” Except, of course, it’s Eminem, so every single viewer knows that it’s not what he does. Then he exits stage left, and drives off. Presumably out of Detroit, like everyone else who can.

Just a little more cognitive dissonance in a commercial piled high with it.

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