The recession has had a massive cultural impact. It changed not only the signifiers that points to certain values or aspirations, but it also changed what we valued. Cultural events of this magnitude shift relationships between signifiers and meaning. After 9/11, computer games no longer had rogue Eastern Europeans as villains and hostile environments were no longer cold. Instead, we started fighting men of Arabian decent and we fighth them mostly in the desert.
A year or so after the recession was actually announced automotive ads started catching up. Most notable were the Chrysler ads. I found a 2008 Chrysler 300 commercial. If you can excuse the content of the wealth and customization it’s interesting to note how standing out and being unique is the focus.
Chrysler made a U-turn on individualism and went for national pride. The first Super Bowl commercial I saw was the one featuring Eminem. A legend from Detroit and a celebrity from humble Detroit beginnings, he stands as the perfect icon for Chrysler who is also an icon with one foot in humble Detroit beginnings while selling in a far more luxurious world. The crux of the ad is ‘we’re tough car people and this is what we do’. It’s leans heavily on legacy, craftsmanship and the American blue collar worker. Still artistic, but no longer a highbrow masterpiece, instead it became a craftsman’s art.
It’s also got an old worldly feel to it: the steel fist, the trench coats, and university teams running in the snow. It’s very Rocky. And more than that, it’s very blue collar. This of course makes sense if you keep in mind who did what to who. The blue collar workers didn’t rebel the world into recession, it was the bankers in the high buildings that pretty much sold us into recession. So this commercial, the American Hero car and Chrysler celebrates genuine hard work
In April 2015 however a new commercial was launched. Also very American. and also very us vs. them (great for identity politics.)
The commercial points out how there is not royal blood in America. This is very true, America is the anti-royal blood country. In fact, a lot of American blood was spilled to keep royal blood out. But it also speaks to a very deep American sentiment that has survived many strong cultural influences: you make your own fortune. Lottery winners are never quite as revered as self-made people. In fact, the fortune that falls in your lap is at the opposite end of the spectrum. Americans respect earned success and so much more if it was in the face of adversity. This is how they kept royal blood out; this is how they built their nation.
The commercial is inspiring and almost war like sentiment – generals looking out over the battlefield, queens looking over their kingdom. And it will not be coincidence. Standing out is the pinnacle of Chrysler. Pre recession it was ‘how do you stand out from your fellow Americans’ and post recession was a question of ‘how does America stand out from other countries’. This otherness, this combatant attitude and coming out on top defines Chrysler. And this, to a great extent is America. It always bounces back and we can see it happen again.
What struck me most was the startling similarity to Nightcrawler. It’s the visuals of the car, the preparation for war, the declaration that nothing is reserved – it’s simply out there for the taking. In the most romantic sense it reminds us of the Wild West when things were simply out there for the taking. But the population was infinitely lower, many were considered as sub-human and taking often did mean killing. Nightcrawler highlights the flaws in these assumptions. How mortifying is it not when anything goes in order to take what is there for the taking. When someone’s measure and the value of their life is directly linked to their power, wealth and status we see a strange new animal. Maybe it’s an old one, but as The Crowd has taken over from The Man, we might be most disgusted to see that the relentless all or nothing, forever criticized capitalism is not a consequence of some power or deity pushing it down on us, it is simply our nature, it is simply what we are.