Sunday, July 3, 2011

Dodge: Building America, and the Tools of the Frontier, since 1914

If you haven't seen this commercial by now, I believe it safe to assume that you, in some combination: a.) do not watch Super Bowl football, b.) do not watch TV, c.) do not love America. If that's the case, I'm glad, if a bit astonished, that I can bring it to you for the first time. Enlightening barbarian minds and all that.

Guts and Glory

Dodge is now hoping to continue capitalizing on the incredible success of that ad, with their new 'Guts & Glory' series for Ram trucks. The entire YouTube playlist is available on the 'ram' channel on Youtube (here).

I started out this post thinking that I shouldn't embed the whole bunch. I was planning to include just the first and the last, and talk about each of them just a bit. But this series of advertisements really is a unit, I've realized, and should be watched together. Which, perhaps, isn't so great for them as a series of commercials, but. I know I would remember the 'Guts * Glory * Ram Productions' logo any time I saw one of these. Anyways. Let's get down to it.

A Note on Narration

This series of advertisements is narrated by Sam Elliott. Seriously. The Stranger. (from The Big Lebowski, for the unfamiliar -- made by the Coen brothers, the guys behind Fargo, No Country, and True Grit. Both alumni of Simon's Rock, incidentally). He's starred and appeared in a good number of Westerns throughout his career, undoubtedly a perfect choice just because of his incredible mustache and voice. My deep-seated geeky impulses got the best of me when I recognized his voice, and I got way too excited about it.

Anyways. He's more or less the perfect narrator for these ads.


The opening salvo is 'Letterpress'. It begins the Guts & Glory series with an appeal to the kind of character with which Dodge associates itself, and sets up the rest of the campaign by making clear just who they're talking to. First and foremost, the person who buys a Ram truck believes in the nobility of work. They are marked by dust, sweat, and blood, yardsticks of their aspirations to achieve greatness in and for the world. These things, The Stranger tells us, are not simply 'traits' of these men, whom we (the company, speaking for all those intimately familiar with these archetypal figures) admire. They are their very soul -- the base and foundation of what makes this person who he is. Ram has no interest in selling a truck to those who will not really use it; they are speaking directly to a particular group of people, who engage with the world by doing, by power of action and force and will. It is a familiar description:
That coarseness and strength combined with acuteness and inquisitiveness, that practical, inventive turn of mind, quick to find expedients, that masterful grasp of material things, lacking in the artistic but powerful to effect great ends, that restless, nervous energy, that dominant individualism, working for good and for evil, and withal that buoyancy and exuberance which comes with freedom.
This is the perfect articulation of the frontier American character, and it is unequivocally the character to whom Ram is appealing and which it admires. This version was articulated by Frederick Jackson Turner in 1893, two decades before Dodge came into being and almost 120 years before this commercial aired. But the central points hold fast -- practical, inventive turn of mind, quick to find expedients, the masterful grasp of material things (as demonstrated by the man operating the letterpress)... these are the characteristics of 'the type of man' who we think of when we picture someone driving a big pick-up.

'Rambox Locking'

We get our first glimpse at one of those men in the next ad. It is titled simply, and after the feature it highlights; how it chooses to highlight this feature, though, is just fantastic. We are given the scene of a frontier town (you've seen it before -- one main street, dusty browns everywhere the eye can see) under threat. 'Bandits are coming through!', a grim-looking old man warns with the ringing of an iron bell -- those lawless, savage men who have lost their sense of civility in the wild and whose presence we simply cannot abide, for it threatens everything about and around us.

Banks lock their safes and close their shades, a mother gathers up her child and flees the streets. Inside a darkened shop, a (gloriously bearded) man checks on the commotion outside. His suspicion confirmed, he nods his head to his little boy, who closes the floor board above himself and hides away. Satisfied that his family is safe, the man gathers of the tools of his trade (I believe he's a blacksmith or a leather worker?), locking them away in the safest place in his shop -- the Rambox on his bright red 2011 Dodge Ram. He locks the box, takes the key in his hand, and walks around to the front of his truck. Our last glimpse of him comes as a sort of split-second still-life, as he calmly stands, key-holding hands crossed in front of him, facing down anything that may come through the door.

Of course, his actions underline the reliability of the Rambox system and the importance of Ram trucks to their owners, but I believe we are to understand more than that. He is a man who is calm and collected in situations of danger, and who is willing to stand up for himself, his livelihood, and his family, if necessary. He does not flee (thus giving up his property and livelihood), but he's also not grabbing a Winchester and trying to play sharpshooter or anything like that; he simply knew what needed to be done to protect himself, his family, and his work, and so he did it. Simple, practical, straightforward, and possessed of that belief in the nobility of work that 'Letterpress' so emphasized. Dodge could ask for little more from a man.

'Thin the Herd'

This one's the most boring of the bunch, in my opinion. It's really just about how Dodge trucks are better than Ford and Chevy trucks, set in a dusty desert and making use of a vaguely 'cowboy' phrase to talk about differentiating Ram from the competition (and it also doesn't help that the other trucks visually brake when the Ram pulls ahead at the climax). Meh. And not what I care about, here. So. Moving on!

'Cummins Standoff'

I am torn between this and the last for the position of my favorite of these ads. The YouTube general public certainly prefers the last of the bunch ('The Code of the West'), with roughly 155,000 views and counting, to the ~32,000 views for 'Cummins Standoff'.

The central premise of this ad is an old-fashioned, Wild-West duel between two pick-up trucks. Their engines, really, are the stars of the show, revving up and getting ready to charge. This proves to be a contest of intimidation, though; as The Stranger reminds us that talk is just talk without the proof of history to back it up, a series of allies roll up and assemble in formation behind the Ram.

And, let's be honest, it is an impressive collection of vehicles. Virtually every 'do-er' in the country is represented here -- farmers, construction workers, truck drivers, firefighters, and soldiers all use Dodge engines in their vehicles, and we are subtly given their implied endorsement that the engine performs when they absolutely need it to, whether their task is defending the country, putting out fires, getting goods where they need to go, growing and harvesting food for the country, or moving earth for a new road or building.

The statement, unstated as it may be, is that this country would not exist without Dodge.

Of course, the opposing Ford pick-up finds itself over-matched and out-gunned and retreats, as The Stranger asks us which engine we would want powering our truck. The question, surely, is rhetorical, for how could there be any other answer? Dodge trucks, in addition to being shiny, representing our admirable character, locking up our valuables, out-classing competitors in fuel efficiency and horsepower, and being backed up by a longer warranty, have been doing the heavy lifting better, and in more vital areas, than anyone else.

'Interior Ranch'

I don't believe that this ad is as well executed as the others (which I assume is because of the sparse narrative role of The Stranger this time around), and it took me a few watches to really get it, beyond 'the inside is classy'. It depicts a man going through an honest day's work (in about 15 seconds) and retiring to the cabin of his truck at the end of the day. It is air-conditioned and pleasant, his favorite music is available at the press of a button, and he can recline his chair into a comfortable position and just relax. The cabin of the truck (forgive the groan-worthy twist) becomes the log cabin of the frontier, the homestead -- as de Tocqueville described it, "a little world; an ark of civilization amid an ocean of foliage" in the wilderness that surrounds it.

A quick look at the title makes this all explicit -- the cabin of the Ram is an 'interior ranch,' a microcosmic representation of the home, with all its comfort and safety and order, and the owner of the truck has the luxury of retiring to that space at the end of his working day. It is a rather brilliant turn, justifying providing the perks of less practical, 'luxury' cars to those who need their vehicle to work with them and for them. I'm not sure I would have picked up on all that if I had just seen the commercial on TV, out of context and without its companions. But, the inside looked nice, and that's what they were selling, so I guess it worked fine.

'The Code of the West'

First off, the outlaw in this ad is played by Walton Goggins (the villain from the head-shakingly absurd Shanghai Noon, starring Owen Wilson and Jackie Chan; more proudly (and/or awesomely), he has a role in the upcoming Cowboys and Aliens and is a main character (by demand of fans after his initially-one-off appearence) on the FX modern-Western cop drama Justified). This casting choice further reinforces its 'Western' street-cred (despite Shanghai Noon...), and I'm a big fan of his (no more than 10 second) performance.

Beyond that, it's a minute-long ad, and I've written too much already. So I won't say much about what actually goes on. The tl;dr (tl;dw?) is that trucks have replaced horses in this version of the Old West as the preeminent mode of transportation and utility, the most useful and lusted-after of possessions. The world of this Old West, governed by 'the Code', is one of common masculinity and character, where the good man speaks with action, not words; does what needs to be done, no matter what it is; and has immaculate hat and firearm-related table manners. In this world, though, above all else, the horse is sacrosanct and not to be coveted. Those who do are outlaws -- and in the commercial, it is notable that the only people outside a town or a home are those who covet and aim to acquire the Ram. The real kicker, though, is that, in the run-up to the 'Guts. Glory. Ram.' finale, The Stranger tells us this time that Dodge trucks are 'Built with honor. Forged with pride.'

I don't know if this campaign is done -- I feel like it is, for whatever that's worth -- but it certainly is a cohesive unit as is. One of the reasons I'm so excited about it is that the introduction to a volume called The Frontier in American Culture (for which Patricia Nelson Limerick wrote a piece that I referenced in my thesis and which played a significant role in the formation of my thoughts on the topic), mentions a commercial for a pick-up truck advertisement with the tag-line, "somewhere along the line everybody wants to be a cowboy." The notion that pick-up advertising culture is founded on this belief is fantastically fun, at least to me.

That's it for now. Thanks for reading! Hope you enjoyed these as much as I do.