It has been my contention for years that identifying the American Zeitgeist by way of the commercials run during the Super Bowl is a noble and dignified pursuit (no matter how ignoble and undignified the ads themselves may be) but that many critics approach it the wrong way. I think of it as something like a Wisdom of the Crowd phenomena: A bunch of Mad Men in ad shops independently, indeed, secretly, trying to grasp the Zeitgeist end up hitting or missing bits or pieces of it. Motifs and images seem to spring out across multiple ads. Sometimes one ad perfectly encapsulates the Spirit of the Times, but frequently not. This year, there is one such ad, but it's not one of the ads being gossiped about, forwarded by e-mail with "LOL" in the subject line, or superficially dissected by Susan Page of USA Today. It's the General Electric ad about their turbine factory in Schenectady, New York:
GE, "Power and Beer"
The Zeitgeist this year: Industry.
It's kind of an old-fashioned term, so a good deal of the subtext is associated with nostalgia, but that's more the vessel of the Spirit rather than the contents. In addition to the GE ad's factory, the factory in the Bud Platinum ad is clean, fresh and modern:
Bud Light Platinum.- Factory
while the sweatshop in the Budweiser Prohibition ad is period (or, almost--I don't think working conditions in garment factories then were quite as nice as Budweiser would have it appear):
The Spirit we're looking for is again to make things. Not sell things (did anyone even notice the Century 21 ad "starring" Donald Trump or did the E-Trade Baby do anything for you this time around?). Not do things like run with new shoes or account for our taxes with a free spreadsheet.
Whether it's funny, like the engineering lab in Bridgestone's Basketball Factory:
The engineers at Bridgestone with their new Performance Basketball
or portentous, like the the factory from which the Lexus GS erupted:
Lexus GS - Beast
it's the idea of the making of things that seemed to touch us this year. Of course, the capstone of that theme is the already-much-debated Chrysler ad featuring Clint Eastwood:
Chrysler - It's Halftime in America.
According to the Reuters dispatch immediately after the game, the patriotic and/or the partisan-political implications leapt out:
The Eastwood ad generated online buzz for its emotional appeal and comments that it looked like an Obama re-election commercial from Chrysler, recipient of a taxpayer funded-bailout.
and I must admit, as a voter for and supporter of President Obama, I giggled as the ad played, recognizing the harmony it rang for Obama with an issue that must surely be raised in the election this year. But on further reflection, I realized that that was not necessarily the case.
For one thing, if that's the Zeitgeist, as I claim, then it's each candidate's responsibility to touch it, and it is open for either or all to align with it. In the instant case of the automobile industry, yes, it might be easier for Obama than for his opponents to capture it. But I can easily imagine methods by which Republican, Libertarian, Green or Democratic candidates could all fold their appeal into the idea of making things, of craft. So Karl Rove should reconsider. As should those Democrats who think this is a slam dunk.
That bodes ill, for example, for those who might be tarred with the brush of the middleman taking a cut rather than the maker of things. Didn't see any ads for the Big Banks this year, did you? (Except for this, which doesn't tout the core functions of the financial sector). And it is by no means a given that Obama can successfully evade the tag as the President beholden to Wall Street. Whether China-bashing is unruly and dangerous protectionism or not, it touches something in our yearning to make things again and it might well be an effective approach for candidates in the Fall.
In any event, I get the feeling that we're all in a mood to do some heavy lifting:
and then relax afterward with a cold beer. Maybe not Budweiser, though. I hear the entire United States Senate will be drinking Smuttynose, New Hampshire's craft beer.