So God made a Farmer

Curator's Note

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?


When reading your post, I couldn't help but think of the Chrysler ad campaign promoting vehicles as "Imported from Detroit." Given the content of the first post for this week's theme, it seems especially relevant to consider these two ads in relation to one another, as they each mythologize rural and urban Midwestern spaces, respectively. In both ads, we're led to equate physical labor with regional identity. Furthermore, as a linked narrative, the ads suggest that the urban Midwest creates the products that enable the rural heartland to be productive; in turn, these rural spaces presumably provide cities with the fruits of their harvest, and the cycle continues. It's a tidy narrative full of omissions and elisions, as highlighted by the "Funny or Die" clip that you discuss. Here's a link to what I believe is the first "Imported from Detroit" ad (which also aired during the Super Bowl):

Nice post Lori and thoughtful response, Adam. What's interesting in both of these ads is the way a certain type of "Midwestern" masculinity (be it urban OR rural) is called upon in order to define Midwestern imagery. This is true more so in the Dodge ad which (aside from a brief flash of a woman and another of a young girl) shows the faces and bodies of rugged, hard-working men. This is reinforced as the voiceover concludes at the end that "his son" decides to do the same job as his dad. This type of imagery paints a picture of what a, as Adam writes, productive Midwest looks like. It's embodied in the laboring productive male body. While not necessarily stressing that type of masculinity to the same extent in the Chrysler ad (because it's more focused on the urban space), we do still see similar imagery of Eminem as the male savior, driving in to save and speak for Detroit. These ads not only trade in "shameless Heartland pandering" but also shameless conservative imaginings of rugged masculinity as it is linked to productivity. Lori, you call our attention to the negotiated reading performed by the Funny or Die parody and I find it interesting that the parody calls attention to the bureaucracy of the contemporary farm industry and the advertiser's strategic pandering yet it doesn't address some of these other issues. I think there's definitely more room here for other avenues of critique- what does the original commercial seem to say about the Heartland, the people who live and work there, and their societal and familial roles?

Wonderful post Lori and perfectly chosen companion ad Adam. Watching each of these over several times I can't help but admire their artistry -- these are both powerful pieces of image and myth making. I too was struck, Staci, by the gender politics of the Dodge ad and its almost aggressive masculinization of the Midwestern social landscape (does this "feminize" the urban coasts in contrast?). It is also of course, exclusively respectably middle-class (no migrant workers or agribusiness moguls here) and dominantly white (although viewing several times, I did note an African American farmer and a mother and son (?) who are perhaps meant to be seen as Hispanic. None of this is surprising, really, but it does frame the region as more homogenous than it certainly is. The "Funny or Die" parody points some of this out very effectively, but undercuts its message (to me) by the exceedingly obnoxious anti-Paul Harvey voice over. The "Imported from Detroit" populace is far more interracial (although you are right to note how Eminem is framed as a "white savior.") On a separate track, I wonder if you all think these landscapes ("So God made a farmer," "Flyover States") are exclusively Midwestern, and if so, what does this include and exclude? In my own work on "Flyover Country" as a concept, I am exploring, in part, the degree to which older regional conceptions (Midwest, Southwest, South and even smaller divisions like upper Midwest) are being supplanted by meta-regions like Flyover. I note sagebrush in one shot in Dodge ad and what appears to be pueblo-style Indian ruins in the Aldean video. All feature low horizons and endless "open skies" which seems to preclude farmers in the Northeast, Northwest or lower South, but both seem to use very expansive visions of "flyover states" or "farm country". Perhaps these distinctions between flyover and Midwest don't matter that much, but I'd still welcome your deeply informed thoughts on this.

I want to pick up on your comment on the feminization of the urban coasts and note that, in my viewing experience, that has definitely been the case in comedies and sitcoms set in the Midwest. Coach (89-97, Minnesota) gets most of its comedic mileage from making jokes at the more "feminine" and "artsy" city boys (such as the band director) in comparison to Hayden Fox the hunting and fishing football coach. His son-in-law Stuart is a mime and I think ends up leaving for New York eventually. Roseanne does this as well, with the more artsy (and, to the show, therefor feminine) David put at the butt of a lot of Dan (construction worker and body shop owner) and his brother Mark's (mechanic) jokes. David and Darlene end up in Chicago for a while, a place more hospitable to them. Images of the Midwest and, in the case of Roseanne, the classed Midwest tend to be tied to the working class productive and physically laboring male body with other bodies placed as deviant.

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