It is unlikely that the late Marxist philosopher Herbert Marcuse (1898-1979) was a baseball fan. But had he been watching Friday's Chicago Cubs-San Francisco Giants game, he would probably have had a lot to say about the new one-minute Jeep Grand Cherokee commercial featuring Cat Stevens' song, “If You Want To Sing Out, Sing Out,” that was broadcast between innings.
In his 1964 book, One Dimensional Man, Marcuse (who taught at Brandeis University and the University of California at San Diego) explored how capitalism seeks to co-opt radical ideas for commercial purposes and turn them into commodities to promote consumer culture and corporate profit. The new commercial for the 2017 Jeep Grand Cherokee is a perfect illustration of Marcuse's point.
Created by the McGarryBowen advertising agency, and entitled “Free to Be,” it is a brilliant and disturbing ad designed to exploit our current political and cultural moment, even making an overt reference to the current presidential contest, in order to sell cars. It both celebrates America's diversity (race, gender, urban/rural) and, simultaneously, highlights our polarized political culture. Advertising Age, an industry publication, claimed that the ad —which Jeep has widely broadcast since late September, including during the presidential debates—“seeks to unite the country.” But what it really seeks to do is unite consumers, regardless of their political views or lifestyles, to buy the Jeep Grand Cherokee.
Using split screens and other clever camerawork (including the use of drones), the ad depicts attractive millennials with different political affiliations and lifestyles driving a red Grand Cherokee Summit and a blue Grand Cherokee Trailhawk. The message is clear: Regardless of their political or lifestyle differences, they all like the Jeep Grand Cherokee. If we're looking to heal America's social and political divide, what can bring us together better than an SUV?
Stevens’s 1971 song, “If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out,” is a fitting accompaniment for the ad. It reflects the contradictory impulses of the 1960s and early 1970s. On the one hand, it evokes the radical spirit of the civil rights and anti-war movements, encouraging people to speak out against arbitrary authority and the political and corporate establishment. On the other hand, it echoes the more hedonistic and even libertarian ethos of the hippie counterculture, calling on people to find themselves through self-expression and individuality (“do your own thing”) rather than through changing institutions and society.
The Jeep commercial perfectly captures these two competing outlooks on life. In the background we hear Stevens’s song, with some of the original lyrics left out:
Well, if you want to sing out, sing out
And if you want to be free, be free
Cause there's a million things to be
You know that there are.
You can do what you want
The opportunity's on
You can make it all true
And you can make it undo.
And if you want to be me, be me
And if you want to be you, be you
Cause there's a million things to do
You know that there are.
While the music is playing, we see a large American flag waving in the wind followed by shots of what appears to be a convoy of military jeeps.
Then the video portrays several attractive millennials (a racially diverse group of men and women in their 20s and 30s) engaged in a variety of activities.
We see them driving their Jeeps next to a luxury high-rise apartment building, in an urban park (New York's Central Park) with high-rises in the distance, around a big-city street and through a bucolic redwood forest as well as other open spaces.
Through the magic of a split screen, the Jeep ends up parked in front of both vegetarian and BBQ restaurants, meant to reflect culinary diversity. The millennial man driving the Grand Cherokee in the opening shot, while singing the ad's theme song even looks like a younger Cat Stevens.
We see a black woman hitting a punching bag in a gym, a white woman doing strenuous yoga exercises on her backyard porch, and a white man perched on a cliff that overlooks the ocean.
At one point in the ad, we see headshots of a young African American woman with short black hair and a white male with long blond hair. They soon morph into two halves of the same head, which millennials might see as an expression of “intersectionality.”
All this is interspersed with shots of Jeep Grand Cherokees adorned with a variety of bumper stickers, including,
• “I'm With America”
• “I Love Animals”
• “I'd Rather Be Hunting”
• “America: With Us Or Against Us”
• The word “Together” using a Christian cross, Jewish star, and Muslim crescent
• “Make Love Not War”
• “Support Our Troops” with an American flag
A split-screen shows the owner of the Summit putting a blue Democratic bumper sticker (a donkey next to “2016”) on her vehicle, while Trailhawk owner puts a red Republican sticker (an elephant next to “2016”) on his.
The commercial ends with these three feel-good messages, while the Jeep itself splits off and goes in two opposite directions:
• “Jeep: What unites us is stronger than what divides us”
• “The new 2017 Grand Cherokee”
• “Jeep: Free to Be”
Corporate America has long exploited politically-oriented popular music to sell their products, from Apple’s use of Crosby, Stills, and Nash’s “Teach Your Children” to promote the Apple II, to Wrangler jeans’ misappropriation of John Fogerty’s and Credence Clearwater Revival’s anti-war song “Fortunate Son,” to General Electric’s misuse of Merle Travis’s song “Sixteen Tons,” about the hard lives of Kentucky coal miners (“You load 16 tons and what do you get? Another day older and deeper in debt”) to tout the wonders of coal, to Mercedes-Benz’s misuse of Janis Joplin’s “Mercedes-Benz,” an ironic critique of materialism (“O Lord, won't you buy me a Mercedes-Benz. My friends all drive Porsches. I must make amends”) to sell their luxury cars.
Pop songs often become iconic, almost rebellious generational anthems for listeners, but they are also commercial products. Artists sign contracts with record companies and give them rights in exchange for royalties. Once they've signed away those rights—as John Fogerty lamented he did with “Fortune Son”—they lose control of their work. Some artists bypass the record companies and keep the rights—which is more possible recently due to new technologies—which creates a more direct relationship between artist and fans, but often at the expense of a wider audience.
But songs are not the only way that corporate America exploits political dissent and cultural rebellion. The Jeep commercial is also reminiscent of the Virginia Slims cigarette ads of the late 1960s and 1970s that exploited the women's movement with its “You've Come A Long Way, Baby” ads illustrated with young, slim healthy women smoking cigarettes. These commercials—found on television, billboards, and in magazines—celebrated women's new-found “freedom” by urging them to smoke a new brand of cigarettes designed just for them. The company was extremely clever in appealing to the generation of baby-boomer women, even going so far as to sponsor the first major women's professional tennis tournament (the Virginia Slims tournament) which helped elevate Billie Jean King—an outspoken feminist—as a cultural icon.
A 2010 TV commercial for the Dodge Challenger also epitomized how advertising tries to transform symbols of rebellion into symbols of consumerism, helping to make consumers feel comfortable that their buying habits don't have to violate their political principles. The Dodge ad involves a re-enactment of a Revolutionary War battlefield. The British troops—complete with red uniforms, three-cornered hats, and muskets—have captured and are about to shoot an American soldier. But to the rescue comes a caravan of Dodge Challengers adorned with American flags, with George Washington driving the lead automobile. As Washington and the Dodge Challengers save the young soldier and force the British to flee, we hear this voice over: “Here's A Couple of Things America Got Right: Cars and Freedom.”
There are, of course, many commercials that juxtapose this seductive combination of rebellion and consumption. The new Jeep commercial is particularly clever in taking advantage of America’s current contentious climate over partisan politics and race relations.
During an election campaign in which Donald Trump has called for banning all Muslims from the United States, the Jeep commercial raises another question. Did the creators of the “Free to Be” ad know that Stevens, who changed his name to Yusuf Islam in 1978 following his conversion to Islam, was denied entry into the United States from 2004 through 2006 because of what the Department of Homeland Security said were “concerns of ties he may have to potential terrorist-related activities”? The singer, who has repeatedly condemned terrorism and Islamic extremism, said that the U.S. government had confused him with a man on watch list named Youssef Islam.
In December 2006 the singer was admitted to the U.S. without incident but also without any explanation for the official policy reversal. He still occasionally visits the U.S. to give concerts, most recently a tour that began in Toronto last month and ended in Los Angeles on Friday, October 7. The singer donated a portion of the revenue from each ticket sale towards his charity Small Kindness, as well as UNICEF and the International Rescue Committee to assist children affected by the current Syrian refugee crisis.
It is unlikely that many millennials even know who Stevens/Islam is, although they might be familiar with the British singer-songwriter's giant hit song, “Peace Train,” also recorded in 1971, the same year as “Sing Out.” Despite his recent tour, more millennial Americans are likely to hear his voice in the Jeep commercial than will ever see him in person or hear his songs on the radio.
Jeep's market researchers no doubt think they figured out how to persuade millennials—who now represent almost one third of the U.S. population—that a Grand Cherokee is exactly what they need to live a life of satisfaction and adventure. The gas-guzzling 2017 Grand Cherokee SUV comes in several models, with the Trailhawk starting at $30,295 and the Summit available for a starting price of $50,395. Meanwhile, however, the earning power of young college graduates has significantly decreased since 2000, in part because the hourly wages of post-graduate professionals, once adjusted for inflation, are lower than they were in the late 1990s. Millennials without a college degree are even worse off in terms of unemployment, income, and future prospects. As a result, millennials have less money than the previous two generations, the baby boomers and generation X. Many of them are still paying off their college loans and can't afford to buy a home.
Nevertheless, the ad makes a compelling point. In a society that sells political candidates as products, why not sell consumer products as political choices? Capitalism seems to work best in an atmosphere of tolerance, where consumers are free to focus on buying stuff in every color, size, and model. The “Free to Be” ad’s sales pitch is that culturally diverse consumerism provides the road to social and political harmony. “You can do want you want,” says the song. You're in your vegan restaurant. I'm at my favorite soul food BBQ place. You vote for Clinton. I’ll vote for Trump. You support the war. I’ll march for peace. It’s a great vision of cultural pluralism, at least for those with the money to buy a Jeep Grand Cherokee.