American Culture

Super Bowl farmer ad sucks, and the idea behind it sucks, too

Well, the votes are in on the best ads from the Super Bowl, and everyone it seems, loves a schmaltzy ad sponsored by Dodge Ram which celebrates American farmers as true heroes, exemplars of all that is right and good with our country. To put this in terms a farmer would understand: Bullshit.

If this is the way we are defining heroes, we need to find a new word. A hero is supposed to be someone who does a heroic deed. A soldier who dashes out under fire to save a wounded comrade is a hero. A teacher who turns down a higher paying job to teach special ed is a hero. A young immigrant who works two jobs and goes to school nights to buy a house for her young family is a hero. People who get up every day and go to work are not heroes, especially when that work entails climbing into the air-conditioned cabs of their enormous tractors and driving down the road to the mailbox, where they collect their lavish checks from the U.S. government.

Look, I grew up on a farm. I’ve worked on a farm. I have a degree in agricultural engineering. I own a farm and live there. My neighbors are farmers, and I’ve spend more than one day helping them load pipe, corral wayward cattle, and string fence. I own a tractor. A real one. I get farming.

I don’t think many people do. They must not, or they wouldn’t make silly, pretentious, misleading ads like the one getting all the critic-love this morning.

Why are we suckers for ads like this? Perhaps it’s nostalgia for a Norman Rockwell-like America that probably never existed. Perhaps it’s survivor guilt. A century or two ago, 90% of us were farmers. Now it’s 1%. Our ancestors and we got as far away as we could  as fast as we could. Perhaps it’s the fact that they now live in fancy mansions no farmer could afford that lead Willie Nelson and John Mellencamp to host annual fundraisers for them. For whatever reason, as a country we have concocted and perpetuated a mythology around the noble small family farm. Even thoughtful and right-minded progressives get lumps in their throats and plaster the bumpers of their hybrid cars with stickers celebrating farmers. We’re not alone. France and Japan have similar blind spots. Still, it’s time to stop this nonsense.

It’s a myth that small farmers matter, at least in the sense that they provide the food on our table. The truth is that small farms make up 90% of farms, but only supply 27% of our food. Farming is like everything else these days, big rules. Yes, family-run diners are cute, but most people get their breakfast from McDonald’s. Small farms make for good commercials, but they are fast become irrelevant in terms of contribution to food supply. It’s the big, professional, commercial farms that feed us.

It’s a myth that we owe them our thanks for doing what they do. We don’t run commercials thanking accountants, or proctologists, or plumbers, or any of a host of people who do things that make our lives better. That’s because they get paid, for Chrissake. Farmers don’t get up every day to grow food because it’s a mission, they do it because it’s their job. As a rule, we don’t thank people profusely for doing their jobs. Okay, it’s polite to thank people, and I have no problem with us thanking farmers, but we don’t owe it to them.

It’s a myth that farmers are strong, self-sufficient, plucky little operations making their lonely way in a tough, cruel world. Farmers get roughly $100 billion a year from the federal government, roughly a quarter of a million dollars per year per farm. Some of that is in direct payments, some of it is in crop insurance, some of it is by guaranteeing markets and prices for whatever they produce. Farmers are some of the biggest deadbeats in America. They are entitlement artistes, managing to milk a perpetual handout from a John Steinbeck novel.

It’s a myth that they form some sort of bedrock for our society. Look at the last election map—the rural areas are all red. Virtually all the recidivist, reactionary, and incompetent idiots in government were elected in farm-heavy areas. Farmers are purely and simply an anchor on our society, holding us back economically, socially and intellectually. I have a lot of respect for the Founding Fathers, but the idea of giving disproportionate representation to rural areas made a lot more sense when a lot of people lived there. Now it has created a system of electoral blackmail, where small, farmer-heavy states can use their undeserved weight to stymie progress.

It’s a myth that these myths don’t hurt anything, that it’s just harmless romanticizing at worst. Because we sanctify farmers, we reflexively support farm bills to “help them out.” That aid hurts the environment by encouraging over-production. It creates famines in Africa because local farmers are put out of business by our heavily subsidized imports. It encourages obesity in the U.S. because it turns out the foods farmers most want to produce (because they’re easy) are also the ones that cause our health problems.

Look, farms do serve a purpose. In a sort of bizarre Keynesian way, as with all industries that use manual labor for part of their value added,  they provide employment for people who lack the intelligence and skills to do other things. It’s not quite the same as one group of men digging holes and another filling them in, but it’s pretty close.

So enough of this. If we’re going to praise someone for goodness sake, how about a commercial for the guy that fixed my DSL last week. Now that was heroic.

9 replies »

  1. While a tad over the top, thank you! My husband was actually mad at me because I didn’t get swoon over the ad and actually had a negative reaction to it. My father’s side of the family is farmers and they are just regular people working, they aren’t doing it for free or because it’s some great mission. They sure as heck aren’t stopping work to “to mend the broken leg of a meadow lark”. (They have too much work to do and small mammals and birds are killed by the thousands every year by modern farm equipment.)

    Of course the whole “God made” annoyed me for a whole other reason. I don’t which is worse: the assumption that “farmers are Good Christian Folk ™” (and better then us city heathens/atheists) or that Ram is dragging in a deity to shill for their trucks.

  2. Darn it! I forgot the meadowlark. I meant to put that in.

    Thanks Lara, and your God points are excellent.

    (By the way, this ad is also pretty close to a rip off of a campaign Chevy has been running for years. I bet they are chewing barbed wire in the Ren Cen (GM’s HQ))

  3. Yeah but a whole lot of suburban cubical dwellers commuted to work this morning in a full size pickup truck, and god dammit they felt like farmers!

    I agree and appreciate the rant. That ad drove me crazy. At first i thought it was cheesy (what else could it be with Paul Harvey talking), and then i thought it went into the silly zone, and then it started pissing me off, and finally i just shook my head at the further redneckification of America. Chrysler must know that we have so few farmers that we don’t even bother with it on the census; therefore, it was directly appealing to the suburban cubicle dweller mentioned above to make him feel like Paul Harvey was talking about him when he drives that full size Dodge down the highway to buy cheesey-poofs at WalMart.

    The sanctification is similar to what we do with military members. And we do it to such a degree that we can no longer admit that these people are human with very real failings. Some of them are ignorant, mean, drunk, violent, bigoted, and/or generally awful. it doesn’t meant there are wonderful people farming of serving in the military, but i cannot see how treating them all like heroes does anyone any good.

  4. Thanks for saying this so eloquently. I come from a family of farmers. I worked farm jobs every summer until I was 18. It’s just a damned job. It pays. It can sometimes pay well. It certainly paid well enough to put a dairy farmer I knew in a Cadillac while he worked his men 13 out of every 14 days for below minimum wage (I was one of them at 16 years old). It paid well enough so that a farmer from where I grew up, with the initials “BW,” got several million dollars compensation when tobacco supports ended. He still grows tobacco under contract with one of the big firms and does very well, thank you. His family acquired its wealth and land, originally, on the backs of slaves.

    I’ve seen farmers punch mules in the head, dump oil and grease anywhere they like, and sell tax-free gasoline to their non-farm neighbors. Most of all, I’ve seen them sit around each other in farm-supply stores and shoot the breeze for hours, solving all the problems the United States might have, mostly by getting rid of everyone who isn’t exactly like them. In my entire life, I’ve never met a group of any other occupation so riddled by bigots. When my father took me to a KKK meeting when I was six years old, the people around me in white hoods were overwhelmingly farmers. Farmers have told me that book larnin’ is worthless, that the Apollo moon shots were responsible for lousing up the weather, and that “everyone knows niggers is lazy because it’s just common sense.”

    I’ve also had many great moments around communal dinners in a farmhouse after a hard day in the fields, been taken to a spring for a dip in the middle of hard work on a hot day, and had a farmer save my life by rushing me to the doctor when, as a child, I drank a poisonous substance on his property. It’s not all bad, but it sure wasn’t all good.

    Farmers aren’t heroes. They’re just working stiffs who often complain about the gummint while on the gummint dole.

  5. BULL’S-EYE ! The real heroes are the survivors of hurricane Sandy and Katrina, the parents of the children in Newtown, Ct. and the list goes. American has some messed-up priorities and that is scary. What’s really scary, I think, is Americans have messed-up priorities and they don’t even realize it.

  6. The idea is to sell Dodge trucks. The advertising industry is the true hero of America. As the devoted super dupper bowl fan stuffs his expanding gut with beer and chips, this commercial fills his dormant cranium with visions of friendly, hard working farmers willing to lend anyone a hand as long as he is piloting a Dodge RAM (with the power stroke 8- yes, sex still sells). After the game he is faced with the fact that tomorrow he will return to his smog shrouded office and will have to deal with his obnoxious and hungover cohorts commiserating on how dull, unjust and worthless their life is. Slowly, almost imperceptibly it occurs to this latest victim of the fatal, consumer virus that all can be changed into bucolic bliss if he were to own a Dodge truck. That very night he rushes to his Dodge dealership and falls prey to the salesman who I can assure you doesn’t know how to spell “manure”. He will enjoy his new truck for exactly one week until he realizes he can’t afford it nor the gas nor put up with his wife’s complaints. Now you know why these iron, ozone pucking beasts (never are they dirty)

  7. Let’s be honest, though: Paul Harvey’s voice evoking a Norman Rockwell life was bound to sweep through the middle of the High Holy Day of Commercialism like a force of nature. Believing in the romanticized portrait of the farmer lets everyone pretend like some enduring American value still exists beyond the excesses of our commercialism.

  8. Now lets cut through the actual bs the author overlooks or simply neglected to learn their history. farming is the only occupation in the history of the world that sells its product below the cost of production. why do you think farm subsidies exist in the first place. everyone down the line makes a cut off the farmer from the seed salesman twine banker tire repareman basically everyone in town its there because of rural economies first. the farmer is the end user. then in turn he sells his product at rock bottom price so everyone up the supply chain can make money off the farmer again. the shipper the miller the elevator the packager the grocer etc. the author doesnt have a clue how our economy works 70% of what goes on in nyc chicago and la is conncetted to farming. i wont sit here and say we are all heros but it damn sure aint a job its a way of life and its tougher than any other occupation out there. thats why there are fewer farmers left than teachers and firefighters and soldiers. alll who are heros for sure but they all have a dependable source of income something farmers never have had. for the author i urge you to please research the midwest farm crisis of the 1980s you pretty clueless my friend.

    • Look, this has got to be a joke. But just in case it’s a serious post, maybe you need to learn a little basic economics. If something consistently sells for below the cost of production, that means it’s excess supply and you shouldn’t be growing it. That’s the first graph everyone learns in economics 101.

      The only way this can go on for any length of time if it someone subsidizes that shortfall. In this case, the government. Now it is true that the subsidies help everyone in the supply chain. If farmers weren’t getting free money from the government, then John Deere could not sell mammoth tractors with cabs that have air conditioning and internet terminals.

      I was on a midwest farm during the crisis of the nineties, St. Anne, Illinois, and remember it well. Perhaps you should go back and read the series of articles done by the Wall Street Journal in 1982 on that farm “crisis,” in which they point out that the only reason the crisis existed was over-investment by farmers in land and in upgrading their lifestyles.

      Dude, I grew up on a farm, I own a farm, I have a degree in ag engineering and a masters in finance, and I’ve worked on farm subsidies in five countries. My conclusions could always be wrong, that happens, but it’s not because I’m clueless. Or your friend.