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Thursday, November 09, 2006

Chevy: Our (White) Country

If you watch football--or if you watch programming people who watch football watch--you've likely seen on TV the "Our Country" ads for Chevy's Silverado line of trucks.

It's no surprise, I suppose, that an ad designed to appeal to Chevy buyers' senses of what it means to be American would represent the essence of American-ness with images of Manly White Men® logging, harvesting crops, and mending fences. What's interesting is that in the version of the commercial (there are three or four) in which African Americans are included in "our country," the narrative of American-ness being invoked is the one that foregrounds social unrest and national disaster. Predictably, then, images of Rosa Parks, Muhammad Ali, and Dr. King are interlaced with footage of the Vietnam war, Nixon's resignation, and hippies dancing in fields and marching in the streets.

This ad has generated controversy, including resistance from the NAACP, but the controversy seems to rest mostly--and understandably--on Chevy's exploitation of images from the civil rights movement and WTC attacks to hawk its trucks. As far as I know, what follows is the only analysis of representations of race in the ads. (Even more telling, as you'll see if you follow the "controversy" link above, is that the ad originally contained an image of an atomic bomb blast, but it was pulled so that the ad wouldn't offend Japanese-Americans.)

Without a doubt, this version, like the others, contains plenty of scenes from everyday-America (a white father and son at the beach, white kids riding bikes in suburbia, a white father and daughter in a farm-like setting). But the only everyday images of African-Americans are clearly linked to Katrina and 9/11. The ad cuts from:
  • stock hurricane footage of a roof blowing off a building
  • to fly-over footage of a flooded (presumably) New Orleans neighborhood
  • to on-the-ground footage of the damaged homes (we're invited to believe it's the same neighborhood, and maybe it is)
  • to a white-t-shirted black man standing next to a work-truck parked in front of one of the homes

What might appear, then, to be an acknowledgement that African Americans are a part of the ho-hum, nothing-special-so-that's-why-it's-special daily life of America, is in fact enabled and framed entirely by the worst (un)natural disaster this country has ever witnessed.

Shortly after that, the ad cuts to a shot of the WTC memorial searchlights beaming up from the lower Manhattan skyline, after which we see four dirty-faced firefighters, one of whom appears to be African American. (Between these images is a shot of a natural arch in a Utah-esqe landscape, but the implicit connection between the WTC searchlights and the firefighters is still obvious.) Again, here's what seems to be an average-Joe African American man whose presence in the ad is, on further inspection, inextricably linked to the terrorist attacks of 9/11.

To summarize, then: if you want to include African Americans in the story of "our country" when you're selling Chevys, then you should make sure to attach their images exclusively to the monumental or the disastrous--in short, to the aberrant. There is no room in these commercials, it seems, for African Americans in the day in, day out life of America.

It's no wonder that Patricia Williams, the renowned legal scholar and critical race theorist, can still write:

It is not that we are all that rare in time—it is that over time our accomplishments have been coopted and have disappeared; the issue is when we can stop being perceived as ‘firsts.’.... ‘If only there were more of you!’ I hear a lot. The truth is, there are lots more of me, and better of me, and always have been.... [We] are, after all, part of Western Civilization. (Alchemy of Race and Rights 113)

[Edited to add: the Williams quote above was pasted from my .pdf of Cathy Prendergast's CCC article "Race: The Absent Presence," which is why the ellipses and brackets are identical to the ones in Cathy's quotation. On re-reading, I thought this bibliographic disclosure seemed called for.]


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