There are no traffic lights at the intersection of art and commerce, so there are often collisions.
One that left us bruised during the Super Bowl featured a magnificent speech exalting the American family farmer, delivered with heart-gripping eloquence by one who knew how. In the end, however, it turned out to be a car ad.
The Dodge Ram truck commercial that aired during the game was one of the most arresting things I have ever seen on television. With all the hours I’ve logged as a watcher and working in the TV industry, that’s saying something. That speech about farmers came from the late Paul Harvey, the radio news commentator who died in 2009 after decades in the business. He originally gave the address at a convention of the Future Farmers of America in 1978.
To say that Harvey was a giant of radio is a criminal understatement. The rest of the story is that he was a pillar of the communications history of this country. Broadcasting a daily show to well over 1,000 stations from Chicago, he gave his take on the big stories of the day, sometimes with long pauses and ear-catching intonations, including his chirpy sign-off, “Good DAY!”
There is no evidence that Harvey was ever bothered by it, but his style became the butt of jokes over the years. Likely he saw it as the sincerest form of flattery and just labored on. No one can deny, though, that when Paul Harvey dropped his voice down a half register to show his pride or conviction, there were few better public speakers living. And no matter what people thought about his politics or story choices, millions tuned in every day; they wouldn’t miss Paul Harvey any more than they would skip a meal or forget to brush their teeth. Harvey created a feeling like the one when everyone on the team puts their hands in for the unity cheer before and after a game — all those hearts and minds reaching toward a studio in Chicago where an old man who seemed a little on the square side made us proud to be together for five minutes.
In the Super Bowl commercial, at the end of that incredible prose about the deep, sacrificial love and dedication it takes to be a farmer, any stone in our hearts was melted in to a benign, glowing lava. So it was jarring to hear the croak of commerce, however quietly it was uttered. Does Dodge have the right to do this? Of course. Are its trucks quality? I have heard they are. Is it advertising’s job to engage hearts and minds? Again, yes. So blame isn’t the point here.
But what do you do with that crestfallen feeling? It’s the one at the end of an excellent movie ending on TV, when all is quiet and meaningful — and immediately the credits get squeezed back into unreadable nothingness at the bottom of the screen, and a clanging-loud promo for Taxidermy Wars chatters away the atmosphere. The popular thing to do, of course, is to rail at Dodge or the Harvey family. They appropriated that wonderful speech for money! They sold out!
Maybe, but probably not. They did what people in their situations do. And that’s beyond our control. No point wondering if Dodge or the Harveys did good or bad; after all, there’s no bodily injury or even moral hurt involved.
So maybe…the responsibility lies with us. Our ears, eyes and hearts belong to us alone. Take the best; ignore the rest? Sure. Why not? If it elevates you, or if it makes you think about the slow death of the family farm and the mold-like spread of horizon-to-horizon corporate corn and inhumane animal feedlots, so much the better.
It’s still a great speech. No truck with that.♦
© 2013 Adam Barr