An estimated 108 million Americans were tuned into the CBS network on February 3, 2013. As per the annual tradition, some viewers were there to see the Ravens take on the 49ers in Super Bowl XLVII, while others were more interested in the big-budget commercials (running $4 million for each 30 second spot) that filled the time in-between game action.
"And on the eighth day," a deep voice beckoned, "God looked down on his planned paradise and said, 'I need a caretaker.' So God made a farmer." Matched with pristine still photos of American farm life and shots of Dodge trucks, the voice of legendary radio broadcaster Paul Harvey was powerful enough to bring even my raucous friends’ Super Bowl party to a silent stand-still.
Significant attention and abundant praise for the Dodge Ram ad followed. As NPR's Marie Godoy articulated, "For two captivating minutes Sunday night, the values and future of American farming left the sidelines of the popular conversation to dominate a very, very large stage."
In reality, however, the Dodge Ram commercial failed to teach the nation much at all about farming in 21st century America. Rather, it served to obfuscate the American public from the realities of our contemporary agricultural experience. Indeed, what really drives much of our industrialized agricultural system today is not a Dodge truck, but rather the exploitation of Latino migrant farmworkers, the raising and slaughter of millions of animals in factory farming conditions, and an overall dependence on environmentally unsustainable farming practices. In fact, going by titles that included “So God Made a (Latino) Farmer” and “God Made a Factory Farmer”, it was these very issues that were highlighted by a set of online parody videos that went viral in the days following the Super Bowl.
I wonder – were these online retorts enough to disrupt the master narrative of idealized American farm life that Dodge pushed forth? Could the controversy that emerged after the commercial aired serve as a way to expand the nation’s discourse about the environmental, economic, and social implications of our agricultural system? Or did the slick effectiveness of the ad push us even further away from this necessary but long-overdue critical interrogation?