I’m always interested in popular images of working-class life, but like most people, I barely see TV commercials anymore, so it took me a while to notice a recent trio of ads that use work as a marketing theme. Advertisers use images to sell things, of course, and that’s part of what makes these ads so problematic – and so interesting.
The first ad, promoting Cadillac’s electric car, features actor Neal McDonough talking about how people in other countries think Americans are crazy for working so hard. He begins outside an upscale home, standing hear a very nice pool, asking “Why do we work so hard? For what? For this? For stuff?” People in other countries “stop by the café” as they “stroll home. They take August off.” “We,” on the other hand – presumably not only white wealthy folks like the narrator but most of us – are “crazy, driven, hard-workin’ believers.” That’s what made it possible for us to go to the moon, and that’s why “we’re the only ones going back there.” Americans are better, the ad suggests, because of the American dream: “It’s pretty simple: you work hard, you create your own luck, and you’ve gotta believe anything is possible.”
While Cadillac rehearses the old myth that anyone can succeed, economists are reporting that few Americans actually live that Horatio Alger storyline. Upward mobility hasn’t declined, a recent paper showed; it’s been low for decades. But as the ad makes clear, the myth of the self-made man still has resonance, both for those who might think the ad describes them but even more, I fear, for those who desperately want to believe that “anything is possible.” If anyone can create their own luck, then the only reason anyone might struggle is that they didn’t try hard enough. To promote this narrative while economic inequality is growing is cynical, arrogant, and mean-spirited.
The Cadillac ad is easy to criticize, since its message is so clearly problematic. Two other ads offer more positive images of work and workers, which make them at once appealing and appalling. Chrysler’s latest “Made in Detroit” Super Bowl ad features yet another white male pop culture icon: Bob Dylan. In this year’s ad, Dylan touts American creativity and pride, and he encourages us to let Germany make beer, Switzerland make watches, and Asia make cell phones. “We will build your car,” he says, leaning down over a barroom pool table. The ad features images of cowboys, cheerleaders, James Dean, Rosie the Riveter, old-style diners, and the American highway system, as well as images of auto plants and of Detroit today. Here, the call to creativity isn’t illustrated by technical innovators but by someone getting a tattoo, by graffiti on a stone bridge, and by Dylan, turning a guitar in his hand, a move that is echoed in a clip from an old industrial film, showing a turning piece of machinery. Like Cadillac, Chrysler is appealing to American arrogance, but with a more working-class approach.
The last ad appeals even more directly to working-class viewers, in part by focusing on deindustrialization and manufacturing jobs. It opens with images of an abandoned factory, as TV host Mike Rowe intones in a voice over, “At one time, I made things, and I took pride in the things I made.” Then, “the gears stopped turning.” But, the voice continues, “I’m still here” (ironically, this echoes a song by Si Kahn, “We’re Still Here,” written for a 1983 documentary about Youngstown steelworkers’ efforts to buy and run the mills that corporations had recently shut down – a connection the ad’s authors almost certainly didn’t know about). As the images shift to someone sweeping an empty factory floor and then to laughing groups of workers, the narrator predicts that “we will rise again, and we will build things, and build families, and build dreams. It’s time to get back to what America does best. Because work is a beautiful thing.” It’s an appealing message, one that reflects some core values of working-class studies. We believe in the power of work, we know what was lost in deindustrialization, and we want to see a return of good jobs that they offer a decent paycheck and a chance to feel proud of one’s work.
Then we see the closing title, showing that the ad is for Wal-Mart, promising to invest in new manufacturing jobs in the U.S. This is just one of several ads Wal-Mart has put out that at least indirectly respond to widespread critiques of its poor treatment of workers. In others, Wal-Mart workers talk about getting promoted, health insurance, and support for education, leaving out other “benefits,” like advice on signing up for public assistance. Critics of the Wal-Mart business model and advocates for low-wage workers have viewed these ads with skepticism, but this latest one elicited an even stronger response, probably because Rowe is known for talking about jobs that are dirty, unusual, and traditionally working-class. He has also formed a foundation to encourage people to pursue skilled trades rather than higher education. Without talking about class directly, Rowe’s website suggests that working-class jobs can be good jobs, and that’s an important message, especially at a time when so many working-class jobs are so bad. You can see how some might have expected Rowe to refuse to speak for the company most strongly identified with bad working-class jobs.
In response to the ad, Jobs with Justice (JwJ), a non-profit that aims to make the bad working-class jobs a little better, targeted Rowe in a letter-writing campaign. Thousands of people have written to encourage him to meet with Wal-Mart workers and challenging him to rescind what they see as his endorsement of the company. Rowe has posted a series of responses on his facebook page, accusing JwJ of misunderstanding his role – he insists he’s not a spokesman for Wal-Mart – and criticizing JwJ’s tactics. If you care so much about workers, he asks at one point, why disrupt my Foundation’s efforts to help young working-class people find good jobs – jobs that are, he points out, significantly better than the ones held by the workers JwJ advocates for? Rowe also challenges JwJ: “But even if Wal-Mart falls short, don’t discount the power of a positive message in the mainstream media. We need more good messages around American manufacturing and hard work. . . . Why not encourage more messages around a topic that can actually help your mission and the people you represent?”
Good question. The message that we need more manufacturing jobs is, indeed, a good one – even though today’s manufacturing jobs don’t offer anything like the pay and benefits of the ones people lost when those factories originally shut down. And yes, we do need more messages that make clear how good jobs improve people’s lives. We also want those images to be used in ways that really do promote workers’ interests. The problem with the Wal-Mart ad isn’t the way it represents work and workers. It’s that it uses those images to promote a company that we know contributes to the problems workers face.
Advertising works in part by creating illusions and by manipulating viewers, so we shouldn’t be surprised that advertisers are responding to economic inequality by capitalizing on the longing many Americans feel for economic hope. They know we’re nostalgic for a time when American made things and when hard work seemed to ensure a better life. They know that we want to believe what the guy in the Cadillac promises – “anything is possible” if only we work hard enough. And they know what we would like to forget: that ads like this work.