Ram's Super Bowl ad: who's a real farmer?

A still from the Ram Truck ad.

By now, you've probably seen what's being called the winning ad of this year's Super Bowl.  And if you haven't, you really should.

Ram Trucks ad of powerful, iconic agricultural images set to Paul Harvey's "So God Made a Farmer" speech is, as we call them in public radio, a "driveway moment".

Here it is:

The ad has generated huge, ebullient praise from farm country.  Canton's FFA (formerly Future Farmers of America) leader, Carol Wright, emailed that the ad's "a pretty huge acknowledgement of the importance of American agriculture and farming in the US as well as the continued importance of FFA in American education."

I'll be honest.  I was completely moved by the ad and reminded yet again that, yes, farmers are heroically toiling against all odds to coax food from the soil, one of the great miracles of our planet.

But the images in the ad clash potently with many of the facts of American agriculture today.  The Dairy Farmers of America CEO who made $30 million.  The hundreds of millions of dollars DFA and Dean Foods are paying out to avoid antitrust lawsuits filed by their own farmers.  The feedlots.  Huge subsidies for farmers/corporations that make millions and millions.

In this vein, the Super Bowl ad has provoked reactions like that of conservative blogger David Harsanyi, who pleads "can we please stop romanticizing farmers?":

Small farms are dying because they can’t compete with the productivity of larger competitors, a reality that many other industries wrestle with — and from which many consumers inevitably benefit. But even if farm subsidies were intended to alleviate rural poverty and disparity within the industry, then why do most go to commercial farms with average incomes of $200,000 to nearly $2 million?

It's this reality of agriculture that has fueled the buy local movement, criticism of consolidation, and stiff opposition in camps across the political spectrum to the Farm Bill.

The farmer depicted in the ad still exists (and in some cases, thrives), but American agriculture has long been something very different than the images in the American imagination.

So who is the real farmer?  Is the Ram ad an actual defense of the farmers of our imagination?  Or is it taking advantage of our feelings about farmers, misleading us about what agriculture is while selling trucks (which, of course, is what it wants to do most)?

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12 Comments

  1. In our living room, that ad got everyone's attention, and most of it was watched in a reverent hush….
    Quite unlike the Jeep ad, which drew jeers for it's use of heart-wrenching imagery in such a cheap shot to sell a frickin' car

  2. I think that all farmers, large or small can identify with the sentiments in the ad. Farmers are caring, hard working, honest stewards of the land and animals. This truth has not changed even as agriculture undeniably has. An excellent tribute to farmers without the petty divisions that are often fought over. Let's leave it at that and just take few minutes to appreciate what all farmers do before we go back to debating the details of modern reality.

    • Honest stewards of the land and animals? The typical farmer dumps so much fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides and other chemicals into the soil that farmland is about as natural as a parking lot.

      Let's drop the rose-colored glasses and acknowledge that farmers are businessmen with bottom lines. They are no more or less caring than any other person who works any other job. The special treatment they get from government and the rest of society is a slap in the face to us every time we go through a supermarket checkout.

      • Well I hoped for a couple minutes and that was all you were gonna let me have I guess…

  3. Excellent comments Aaron!

  4. I thought the ad was incredibly effective. But it's also worthwhile taking note of the ways that other people (politicians, corporations, car dealers…) leverage the iconic imagery of the farm for other purposes. The reasons are obvious. This landscape and these people are the ur-narrative of the American experience. This is what a lot of the country still thinks of as the 'real' America, even if they themselves live in the suburbs or the city. And everyone wants a piece of that good will. Which is fine. All cultures have foundational myths and narratives. But it's important to do a gut check now and then. Is this stuff still real? Is the thing being advertised really connected somehow to those pictures and those faces?

    –brian, ncpr

  5. It's not valid to criticize farmers for being exploited by corporate buyers such as DFA, DEan Foods and CAFOs. The farm commodity subsidy issue is misunderstood. Farmers have fought against wrecking the farm bill and other corporate exploitation for decades, but lost, lacking the support of a consumer-side food movement. See this in 2 YouTube videos, "Food Movement 1985" and "American Agriculture Movement Protests." Conservative blogger David Harsany is misinformed about a wide range of related issues, like these I'm exposing here. See my comment through your link. Today we have a huge consumer Food Movement which strongly disagrees with your claims that they benefit from agribusiiness domination of the food system (health, environment, food quality, wealth & jobs creation, export losses (dumping) etc.! For a sum of 8 major (subsidized) commodity crops, they lost money in the market every year 1981-2006, (except 1996) (and for all but three, much same through 2011). That gives wages, but below zero return on money invested in land, machinery, utilities, etc. So then, you wonder, why is it that the survivors tend to be wealthier (with bigger OFF FARM incomes). But those "average incomes" are not from farming.

    large livestock firms are massively subsidized by the farm bill with hidden below cost gains, you know, to "compete" against diversified small farms, and take away the value added of livestock, thus requiring farms to get much bigger to make the same income. Tax loss farming gives wealthy investors great write offs, to lose money and compete against small farms.

    All of this (cheap farmers, fewer small farmers, agbiz domination etc.) also hurts the local food movement, and could destroy it.

    Most of us have been pushed out, but a huge number of us hold on, on the side, as those tiny entities in the Farm Subsidy database. We need bloggers who know how the farm bill works, not cheap shots based upon easily refutable myths. Read my blog and Farm Bill Primer. Support the major "Farm Justice Proposals for the 2012 Farm Bill."

  6. The ad was designed to sell trucks. The thought process for the consumer is as follows: If you are a farmer you are a real man/ woman and you drive a truck so if you want to feel like a real man/ woman; buy a truck. Farmers don't buy new trucks that make the auto companies a lot of money, the other people buy those trucks. Americans want to feel like they are farmers, ranchers and cowboys so they buy a truck but they have to use it as a family vehicle so they buy it with a crew cab and heated leather seats will be nice for the long commute, oh and get the engine with high end torque so you can pretend to be a nascar driver too.

    • Bluette, Yes, of course it's an ad from a big corporation, (with all that that means,) and elsewhere on YouTube it's Paul Harvey without the ad, and he's conservative and leaves out our fight for a good Farm Bill, (which is symbolized, at least, by the farming struggles in the piece). "American Agriculture Movement Protests." To stand out, however, this ad is unlike other ads, which makes it a different story. Yes to selling others on the deep drama of farming, the sense of tragedy, (preciousness of life,) that alienated people may crave, (but not our crucifixion and stress from agribusiness exploitation). But farmers themselves buy a lot of trucks (and farm machinery) which creates urban jobs and wealth, but not when driven out of business by agribusiness, (on this see the YouTube video: "American Agriculture Movement Protests, Chicago, 1985").

  7. Aaron, your comments are still the most cogent.

  8. The ad mirrors much of what takes place in NY. Just look at the most recent ag census. 99% of farms in this state are family owned. Sure, some farms are bigger than others. Often many have to expand to account for several family members who all work on the farm to support their individual families. Anyone who takes a drive through rural New York knows the landscape is full of hard working families who produce great local food and products like the ones depicted in the ad.

  9. If I were a farmer (or indeed if I were Paul Harvey) I'd be pretty nonplussed with Dodge for coopting this incredibly affecting bit of speech, to sell trucks.