Dodge RAM trucks’ 2013 Super Bowl ad used overt American civil religious imagery – non-denominational Protestant church, calloused hands folded in prayer, a family saying grace – as the voice of no-nonsense Paul Harvey intoned: “And on the 8th day, God looked down on his planned paradise and said, 'I need a caretaker.' So God made a farmer.” AdWeek ranked the 2-minute TV ad second on its list of the year's best. Harvey’s poem narrates a series of powerful still images of Midwestern landscapes, families and farmers. But text at the end of the ad dedicates the message, “To the farmer in all of us.” The ad inspired a groundswell of positive reaction among Super Bowl audiences, but also a cynical parody on Funny or Die, “God Made a Factory Farmer,” which mocked corporate abuse of farm subsidies, GMO crops, pesticides and immigrant labor, among other sins. The parody ad ends with the text, “Here's to shameless Heartland pandering.”
The American civil religious symbolism (“To the farmer in all of us”) succeeds in tapping a spiritual connectedness among the audience – and presumably among Dodge truck owners. This at a time when Congress’s approval ratings hit historic lows and a politically bruised President Obama’s second term began quietly, relative to the fanfare of his 2008 victory. Amidst political polarization and Congressional gridlock, American civil religious messages allow corporations to call upon deeply held beliefs about American identity, while skirting culture wars issues that alienate various audiences – especially an audience as large and diverse as the Super Bowl’s. While Funny or Die’s cynical parody of the ad got a bit of traction on Facebook and Twitter – it currently has a modest 430,000 views – its audience is dwarfed by the 16.7 million YouTube views and more than 108 million in the Super Bowl XLVII audience.
Even in a contentious political climate, oppositional and parody texts struggle against a civil religious hegemony that succeeds in uniting audiences as it erases political conflict. Still, 20 years ago, such a parody ad might only have been seen on Saturday Night Live, if at all. What do more online spaces for parody, not to mention the growth in parody TV – including SNL, The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, The Soup, Tosh.O, etc. – mean for oppositional voices and appropriating hegemonic texts for social commentary?