Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Neo-bohemia meets living history: the Dodge Challenger campaign

It's hard to know where to start deconstructing the recent "Freedom" ad campaign for the Dodge Challenger.  First aired during the World Soccer Cup meetup between Britain and the U.S., the central TV ad in the campaign is an incredibly rich and mythic little text, with three black Dodge Challengers (the lead one driven by George Washington himself) roaring out of the American mountains to scatter a waiting group of British redcoats.  American flags wave from the windows of the cars, as they did everywhere after 9/11.  A plaintive violin soundtrack clearly evokes the elegiac nationalism of a Ken Burns documentary, while the expressions on the faces of the panic-stricken Brits neatly invert the historical Native American experience of being overwhelmed on the open battlefield by a mysterious and vastly superior technology.  Guns, here, are no match for the internal combustion engine and the awe it inspires--it's "a f***ing black monster," in the words of one of the production crew in the "making of" video.  In the tag line at the end--"Here's a couple of things America got right:  cars, and freedom"--the emphasis is subtly on the word "America," a not-so-subtle poke at non-American car producers (are you listening, Toyota?).   

One of the many things that strikes me about this ad is the neobohemian ethos and location of the company that created it.  Wieden + Kennedy (and oh, how tired I'm getting of that plus sign as a shorthand for corporate hipness) is a design firm headquartered in Portland, Oregon and with outposts in several major cities around the world.  Like Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, Chevrolet's new ad firm which I wrote about in an earlier post, W+K projects a counter-cultural image  that's very appropriate for Portland's civic image of carefully-nurtured weirdness.  The firm's homepage includes nuggets from its corporate philosophy, ranging from the counter-intuitive ("Hire wrong") to the provocative ("Creativity comes out both ends").  Photos of W+K's personnel similarly emphasize artsy individuality and in-your-face funk.

But in their work for Target, Levi, Chrysler, and others, these creative types are neatly knitted into the circuits of global capital, perhaps in the kinds of ways that Richard Lloyd writes about in his great book Neo-Bohemia:  Art and Commerce in the Postindustrial City (Routledge, 2006).  Lloyd's book takes a detailed, ethnographic look at the music, art, and design scenes in Chicago's Wicker Park neighborhood, and concludes that big-time capitalism has become very adept at mobilizing the talents and desires of economically marginal artsy workers, allowing for a workplace atmosphere that retains what is bohemian while enlisting the products of these workplaces in its own quest for accumulation.  What I love (in a perverse way) about the Dodge Challenger ad campaign is the way all of this is pulled together with a Ken Burns/History Channel/reenactor kind of sensibility.  It's as though we've reached the point where the forms of high capitalism truly can absorb and hybridize any and all cultural materials, from what I assume are the leftie and progressive artists of Portland to the gun-totin' centrists, conservatives, and libertarians of the reenactor world.  Now, that's an achievement to put fear into anyone trying to take a stand against it!

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