The goal of advertising is usually straightforward: Encourage the audience to buy your product. Super Bowl advertising, like the game itself, has broader implications, however. It’s a chance to shake up the market. It’s an opportunity for ad agencies to strut their creative genius. It’s a forum to make a statement, sometimes with political overtones.
The bar was always high because the spots are expensive, and was set even higher in 1984 by the Ridley Scott-directed Apple McIntosh ad that prompted everything from law review articles and doctorate dissertations to museum exhibits and a documentary film about Apple’s founders. Each year they prompt hundreds of articles ranking the “best” and “worst” Super Bowl ads.
Such lists are subjective, of course. More art than commerce, the ads’ relative beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Moreover, our opinions can be self-revealing. I loved this year’s Joe Montana pitch for Guinness beer. I loved the Bruce Springsteen Jeep ad even more. What does that say about me? Even if you didn’t know I was a boyhood San Francisco 49er fan, an avid Guinness drinker, and a collector of every Springsteen album, you’d suspect (correctly) that I’m an optimist who clings to the idea that America’s best days are ahead. You also might think (again, correctly) that I believe we are at a pivot point in our nation’s history and that those working to bridge our political divides rather than exploit them hold that better future in their hands.
Most of my regular readers, and I write a daily newsletter, probably know that about me -- just as they know I’m nonpartisan. But after expressing admiration for the Springsteen ad Monday, I heard from several of those on the right side of the political aisle. Their antipathy for the Jeep ad, echoed by conservative journalists I respect such as Byron York and Mollie Hemingway, centered on the following:
-- Bruce Springsteen is a partisan Democrat who has criticized every Republican president in recent memory. As such, his call for unity is hypocritical. “Springsteen’s posture against Republicans is well known and goes back decades,” wrote Mollie Hemingway. “He endorsed and campaigned for John Kerry, Barack Obama, and Joe Biden.”
-- He’s been particularly vitriolic about Donald Trump. “Springsteen stated that if Trump was reelected, ‘the Boss’ would move to Australia,” wrote one friend. “How’s that for reuniting the country around the results of an election? Would Jeep have then changed the locale of their ad to the Lambert Gravitational Centre?”
-- The ad contained all kinds of inauthentic imagery, ranging from its religious symbolism to its Middle America and Western motifs. Byron York tweeted sarcastically about Springsteen “the Asbury Park cowboy.”
Criticism also emerged from the left, in two forms: First, that Springsteen is somehow a “sellout,” for appearing in a commercial at all. Second, that it’s not time to “re-unite” America; it’s time to hunt down and punish Trump supporters. I view the first claim as inane, the second as dangerous. Both wrongheaded notions were spelled out in a Washington Post column headlined “If Bruce Springsteen’s Jeep commercial doesn’t bum you out, congrats on the purchase of your new Jeep.” Personally, what bums me out is that my hometown paper publishes such knee-jerk material. But as they say at the racetrack, differences of opinion are what make horse races. At the same time, I also find the conservative criticisms of the Springsteen ad misguided.
Let’s first dispense with the faux cowboy accusation. This criticism reveals a lack of knowledge of Bruce-ology. Yes, he was raised in New Jersey and lives there now, but Springsteen’s parents decamped for California when he was a teenager and he lived on the West Coast in three separate stints, including in his early 20s. He also frequently explored the Midwest in person and in his music -- what do his critics suppose his 1982 album “Nebraska” was about? -- and his most recent work, “Western Stars,” is set in the West and explores not just the musical influences of country music and early California rock, but also the lure of Western migration on the American psyche. The persona of Bruce on “Western Stars” is so similar to the Bruce in the Super Bowl ad that I initially assumed the ad was for the film about it, not Jeep.
Springsteen’s politics are more fraught. It’s true that he’s a partisan Democrat and has been for 40 years. His fans learned this one night during an Arizona concert known to Springsteen aficionados as a legendary performance as well as for a single comment made as the band prepared to play “Badlands.” It was Wednesday, Nov. 5, 1980, the day after the election that put Ronald Reagan in the White House. “I don’t know what you guys think about what happened last night,” Springsteen said without preamble, “but I think it’s pretty frightening.”
Those who appreciate the talents of both Reagan and Springsteen suspect that Bruce had more in common with the Gipper than he realized -- that their real differences were generational -- an idea explored by Springsteen biographer Marc Dolan. Nonetheless, over the course of the ensuing four decades, Springsteen’s progressive views came clearly into focus. During the 1990s, he was writing overtly political songs on topics ranging from police shootings and immigration to the attacks of 9/11. By 2004, he endorsed a candidate, namely Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry.
In 2016, Bruce was openly snubbing one of his own fanboys, New Jersey Republican Gov. Chris Christie, which was painful to watch. Springsteen was also a headliner at an 11th hour rally in Philadelphia by Hillary Clinton’s campaign, which belatedly detected trouble in the heartland -- including the key state of Pennsylvania. Earlier, Springsteen had called Trump “a moron.” At the Philadelphia event, he extolled Clinton’s vision for America, while castigating Trump’s, before playing three songs on his acoustic guitar. “My Hometown” was not among them.
“They’re closing down the textile mill across the railroad tracks,” Bruce sings in that iconic Rust Belt anthem. “The foreman says these jobs are going boys, and they ain’t coming back.” The Republican presidential nominee was promising to bring them back, though, and blaming the Democratic and Republican parties for letting them leave in the first place. Working-class voters in these battleground states, it seems, gave more credence to the emotions chronicled in Springsteen’s earlier work than his 21st century political endorsements.
For Springsteen fans who didn’t share his politics, it was by then no longer a matter of separating the man from the art. His political songs were part of the package. So how was it possible for a conservative or a centrist or a libertarian or a fan uninterested in politics to keep loving his music? And, to address the question posed to me, how is he a credible spokesman for uniting the country?
My answer is the same to both questions: You don’t have to vote the way Bruce Springsteen votes to appreciate him -- or his work. He makes that possible because unlike so many political activists or opinion journalists, he doesn’t demonize the supporters of politicians he dislikes. The two political parties -- and their media mouthpieces -- thrive on stoking bad blood between the two camps. In his music, Springsteen does something healthier.
“American Skin (41 Shots)” is a song about the police shooting of an unarmed New Yorker. In “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” Springsteen compares illegal immigrants from Mexico to the Okies who migrated to the same California towns three or four generations earlier. On that same album, he describes the broken social contract between America and blue-collar workers in places like Youngstown, Ohio. After 9/11, an anonymous fan shouted in a parking lot to him, “We need you!” His response was “The Rising,” an album paying homage to the families of those who will never come home (“You’re Missing”), while exploring the precariousness of interfaith love (“Worlds Apart”) in a world aflame in sectarian violence.
No American should be uncomfortable exploring these themes. Conservatives, too, want fewer police shootings. Nearly everyone’s ancestors were immigrants. Bruce Springsteen may vote the same way in every election, but his enduring message, even in his political songs, is more ecumenical. If there is a single word that captures their essence, I’d say it’s empathy. That’s the trait we’re going to need more of if we want to “Re-Unite” the country, and it’s why I found him a compelling pitchman for that idea. Now, I’m off to the local Jeep dealer.