G.L.Piggy [at] gmail.com
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But there’s a problem. The ad paints a portrait of the American agricultural workforce that is horribly skewed. In Dodge’s world, almost every farmer is a white Caucasian. And that’s about as realistic as a Thomas Kincade painting.
Stipulating that visual inspection is a rough measure for the complex genealogical histories of people, I decided to count the race and ethnicity of the people in Dodge’s ad. Here’s what I found: 15 white people, one black man, and two (maybe three?) Latinos.
Analyzing the hidden messages communicated by the demographics of commercials is fun stuff. I’ll admit that. Madrigal continues, making an argument similar to one Yglesias threw out on Twitter:
I couldn’t help but wonder: Where are all the campesinos? The ethnic mix Dodge chose to represent American farming is flat-out wrong.
It’s true that whites are the managers of 96 percent of the nation’s farms, according to the USDA’s 2007 Census of Agriculture. But the agricultural workforce is overwhelmingly Mexican with some workers from Central America thrown in. The Department of Labor’s National Agriculture Worker Survey has found that over the last decade, around 70 percent of farmworkers in America were born in Mexico, most in a few states along the Pacific coast. This should not be news. Everyone knows this is how farms are run.
And yet when a company decided to pay homage to the people who grow our food, they left out the people who do much of the labor, particularly on the big farms that continue to power the food system. You want to tell a grand story about the glories of working the land? You want to celebrate the people who grow food? You want to expound on the positive ‘merican qualities that agricultural work develops in people? Great! What a nice, nostalgic idea!
Now, did God make Mexican farmworkers or only white farmers? Is the strength and toughness that comes from hard work God’s gift to white people only?
Madrigal does acknowledge the importance of target demographics and so this should be no mystery. The most important demographic here are the farmers who will actually buy brand new trucks. An extension is the people who would feel a bit of nostalgia for farming as a romanticized American institution. So we’re talking about “managers” and owners of farms, and the people who have nostalgia for an era of widespread farm ownership. This isn’t a nostalgia for “the people who grow our food”; it’s nostalgia for the people for whom farming is their identity.
This nostalgia is less likely to have an impact on migrant workers – people who are, by definition, transitory and therefore not as likely to have deep ties to the land. The ad is nostalgic about the way that American agrarianism fits into our sense of patriotism as well as our very American ideal of land ownership.
So one could make the case that this is classist rather than racist. Capital versus labor, and then someone will inevitably say something about how the white man stole the land from Natives or Mexicans. That discussion would actually be much more interesting than the one about simple racial patterns featured in a glossy commercial airing in 2013.
But might as well go deeper.
When we investigate what makes someone a farmer we are asking a question about identity. How their being is tied to their occupation – or, rather, their vocation. I’d argue that a migrant worker or someone who works in the fields and does the laborious work of moving our foodstuff from point A to point B is not necessarily a farmer in this exact sense. So the romanticization of the farmer won’t be as inclusive of this type of worker. The campesino may be farming, but he is not actually “a farmer”. That is not his identity or his vocation; that is his occupation. Copywriters aren’t necessarily writer writers. They are writing, but they could just as easily get picked up as an office worker or a salesman and not have their identity affected by the occupational shift. So the essence of a farmer farmer requires a deeper root. And that root is fittingly buried in the soil, earth, dirt, land, etc.
Some of my family on my mom’s side were Okie farmers. My great-grandparents owned a plot of land on which five children including my grandmother were raised. It was where my great-grandmother sold eggs and milk and where cotton was grown. She loved that land so much that, according to family legend, she died of a broken heart when half of The Farm was sold to the government for interstate highway construction.
When Harvey spoke of a farmer shedding a tear for a lost colt or contributing to the local community, he spoke of something that runs deeper than the mere investment of time and even energy. Identity is at stake. Dodge is trying to sell that integrity; those who care only about a job can buy Chevy or Ford.
All of this is in theory, and we have to keep in mind that Dodge (and Paul Harvey) wanted to paint a more Rockwellian picture than what actually exists in rural America today or even in 1978. Corporations have caused (forced?) farmers to leave their land, to seek other types of jobs, and to move to more densely populated locales. Many of former farmer stock (such as my family) didn’t maintain the livelihood though there is still that desire to have it all back.
The most incisive type of critique of the Dodge ad isn’t that it displays some sort of whitewashing; it’s that it is carrying on this romanticized notion of the Jeffersonian agrarian ideal even while the few farmers that still exist in this country don’t wake up every morning to sniff the dirt or even get their hands dirty. But the point of any ingenious ad is to make us all feel as if we’re part of a bigger group than actually exists. Dodge acknowledges this with its script at the end: “to the farmer in all of us.”
TL;DR version of this: the Dodge ad is selling nostalgia, and nostalgia in America tends to work best on white people when it depicts the working white class engaging in their ways of life. And doubly so when the salt of the earth type is engaged in a vocation through which they draw their sense of identity and purpose. Steelworkers and such. It’s hard to imply racism or whitewashing though if the same tone of ad were geared towards Hispanics who aren’t as susceptible to this type of advert ploy. A question for another time: why are American whites so prone to nostalgia? Keep in mind, some consider nostalgia a type of mental illness, and others consider white nostalgia to be racist, though others acknowledge white nostalgia without blaming racism.
Further reading: psychologist Erik Erikson on occupational identity.