What caught my eye was a Volkswagen commercial that featured a scene on some outcrop along the Pacific Coast Highway; as with many a car commercial Big Sur provides the rugged, ragged, horizon-laden metaphor of west coast freedom of space, thought and the open road. Unlike countless other commercials set there, the theme was not complemented by the openness of a cruising convertible. Instead, the commercial ended with the spreading of a lost patriarch's ashes into the Pacific waters and a child attempting to frame the setting sun in her fingers.
What I saw on CNN was an abbreviated version of "America," a commercial for a new seven-seater that VW has introduced. Without the soundtrack, the ad seemed downbeat - as bleak and self-destructive as the EV-1 ads GM did when introducing and distancing itself from its first electric car. A visit to YouTube to watch the ad with the soundtrack gave more context. Simon and Garfunkel's "America," is deployed to accompany a family's coast to coast journey through America's rural landscapes to evoke an attachment or some nostalgia for a nation that was once held together by its highways and its fondness for the open road and the promise that it held of there being enough space for everyone.
The longer version of the commercial begins with the matriarch urging her kin to see the country she wanted to see and doing it together, phrasing that struck me as awkwardly on the nose with its reference to the spacious car. However, when she says,"there is enough room for everyone" she is not talking about the car, but the country and echoing the same tone as the more positive commercials that were featured during the Super Bowl in February. VW's spot tries to reiterate the need for the country to hold together, but there is a meekness about that message. The journey starts in New York City with a drive across one of the city's bridges but that is the lone image of urban American life throughout the journey. The family passes through countryside, stops to reminisce at the type of diner that is used in Iowa by aspiring presidential candidates to play the man-of-the-people role as campaign stagecraft unfolds every fourth January.
Each of the rural settings evokes the reminders of the wide open spaces and the purity of the landscape but with each shot in the sequence, the is an insistent reminder that these are the flyover states that turned Red last November. The efforts at quaint nostalgia around an old abandoned sedan just as easily remind people of the decay in the Rust Belt as they do the peak of the Greatest Generation. Rather than stating the desire for diversity and defiance of Trump's myopic version of greatness as boldly as those Super Bowl ads did, this one come across as resigned and cautious in its assertion of what America ought to be and may still be. If only...
The conventional symbols have morphed under the weight of pessimism and are now adulterated by the co-opting of the word "America" by the current president and the misplaced ennui that made him president. Through this lens, the comfort of these familiar tropes is lost and the Simon and Garfunkel tune now, even a year after Bernie Sanders' use of it, seems elegiac rather than aspirational.
Perhaps the images alone will carry that message with the caution and delicacy to win over the denizens of the flyover states. Perhaps Americans will venture out once again on road trips and share stories such as the one that is the centre of this ad. The question that remains and does not evoke the most optimistic of answers, however, is whenever people will care enough to listen to one another's stories and let them unfold in the detail and richness of a few minutes and not 30 seconds or 140 characters.