But one of the most-watched commercials during the Superbowl is a little surprising.
It is an ode to agriculture by Dodge Ram. The booming voice of late radio broadcaster Paul Harvey is laid over images of rustic landscapes and men gazing off stoically into the distance.
He describes the ideal farmer: A rough-handed man with a big heart and a deep respect for nature. Someone who is resourceful, patient, and treats farming as a higher calling.
108.4 million people saw it on TV. Add on to that the over 13 million who’ve seen it online.
The commercial was even chosen as the best Superbowl advertisement by Adweek.
A lot of people have said how emotionally moving they found the commercial.
I’ll admit I felt a shiver when I watched it. But when I compared it to some previous research, it lost some of its romantic sheen.
I wrote my thesis on men who went to Agriculture College during the First World War. It wasn’t easy for those guys to go to school (farming school, at that) when other men were dying on the battlefield. I pored over school newspapers to see how they wrote about their situation.
The papers gave the farming students an opportunity to present an image of themselves to the outside world. It allowed them to shape how others saw them as they sat in classrooms while the war raged on.
In the newspapers I found the same kind of self-aggrandizing descriptions of farming as seen in the ad. A whole century later, and the same stereotype of the farmer is being used. But why? The students' writing helps to give some context.
As can be expected, the students talked a lot about their role as food producers. They talked about playing a key role overseas by producing the food that fed the soldiers.
They also emphasised the high-tech nature of the new farming skills they were learning and tried to portray farming as an official ‘profession’ the same way doctors, lawyers, and engineers were doing at the time.
But what comes across the strongest (and what really shines through in the Dodge piece) is the desire to show how noble and religious the experience of agriculture is.
Listen to some of these voices. One student named J.B. Munro wrote:
“The very nature of our calling, its associations with life, the free open air, the bright sun, the emerald plains…the sweet singing of birds, the study of the living, growing that abound in nature must inspire us to lofty ideals... we are co-workers with God in replenishing the earth.”Another student voiced the idea that agriculture was the basis of civility: "Should the soil and the farmer perish… the angels from heaven soon would look down upon a dead world or upon a civilization retreating toward the barbarism whence it evolved.”
According to them, agriculture was not only an honourable pursuit but it was also an extremely masculine one.
One student named Orloff Mallory mocked the men who moved to the city because they weren’t ‘man enough’ for country living.
“Now you, who left the farm so that you would not have to milk those cows morning and night and work out in the hot sun all day, do you really enjoy that girl’s job you have in the office or munitions plant? Is it making the best kind of man out of you? Does not your conscience bother you sometimes?”At one point farming was even explained as tougher and more difficult than fighting in the war. G.E. DeLong said:
"Agriculture is a long battle which lasts from spring to fall, from 5 o’clock in the morning till 8 o’clock at night, it is not a job for the physically unfit man. It is a battle in which the individual and not the battalion or division fights an untiring foe, a battle that takes more courage and staying power than the battlefield, because in farming there is not the cheery voice of the comrade of the bravery born of numbers to help the farmer. He must fight it out alone.”Clearly the agriculture students of the early 20th century felt they had to get the message out: they were manly, important, and powerful. Just as the people over at Dodge felt obliged to do today.
So why did they feel they needed to constantly promote rural life as the embodiment of machismo and nobility?
The most obvious reason is they felt guilty about not playing a more active role in the war. It forced them to feed or fight, and their choice inevitably made them less powerful and masculine.
On top of his, the early 20th century was a time of rural decline – the population was moving to the city and the country was seen as culturally inferior. Also mechanization took away some of the dangerous, rugged and ‘manlier’ aspects of farming. They used the newspaper as a way to compensate for this.
The idea that 'the country' is a cultural inferior place is still very much alive. The city is the centre of modern society. Traditional rural life is still considered under attack.
Perhaps this illustration of a steadfast man who is strong yet sensitive, patiently tending to the land is just a defence of a way of life. Or it's nostalgia.
The ad paints a completely inaccurate picture of how agribusiness works today. Some parodies have done a great job of exposing this by highlighting the role of migrant work and environmentally damaging practices in modern farming.
That rural man in Paul Harvey's speech didn't exist in 1914, and he doesn't exist now. He is only a stereotype.
But it isn't the job of advertisements to portray reality. It is their job to make an impact. And clearly, the Dodge ad succeeded.
It's interesting, then, that during one of the most live-tweeted superbowls of all time, one of the messages that rang through the clearest was a yearning for a simpler way of life.