It turns out that, “The Middle,” the Super Bowl advertisement for Jeep featuring Bruce Springsteen, shot in Lebanon, Kansas, has angered both Democrats and Republicans when, in fact it was supposed to be “a somber plea to end division in the U.S.” In fact, the two-minute-long video seems more a Public Service Announcement than a commercial.
Titled “The Middle,” the ad begins with a hovering drone shot over an empty two-lane highway. We get a quick sideways glimpse of the front seat of Springsteen’s 1980 Jeep CJ-5 as he seemingly begins to preach: “There’s a chapel in Kansas standing on the exact center of the Lower 48. It never closes. All are more than welcome to come meet here – in the middle.”
The chapel has a star-spangled map with a cross on top of it, as the ad shows. And to make the point clear, other drone shots of the wintry countryside include several more crosses during the course of the two-minute video. “It’s no secret the middle has been a hard place to get to lately,” Springsteen says.
“We just have to remember the very soil we stand on is common ground,” Springsteen says as he grabs a fistful of dirt from the ground. He adds: “Our light has always found its way through the darkness. And there’s hope up on the road ahead,” Springsteen finishes, doffing his cowboy hat in front of the chapel’s steeple as the sun sets in the background. The beautifully photographed blue light reinforces the fact that it is winter and that it must be freezing cold out there. The ad ends with the tagline, “To The ReUnited States of America.”
At first glance, this commercial really worked for me. I’m an American, living overseas, and after four years in which I was ashamed of ex-President Donald Trump and his divisive policies, I desperately want to feel proud of the stars and stripes flapping in the wind again.
But after watching the video a second and a third time, I began to have some serious reservations. First and foremost, it’s crystal clear that the only Americans Springsteen is inviting to this “middle” are white Christians.
As a matter of fact, only days after the invasion of the Capitol in Washington D.C. on January 6th by a multitude of mainly white nationalists, many Black people might object that for them it isn’t wise or even possible, let alone safe, to meet “in the middle.”
My former colleague at ABC News, Meredith Wheeler wrote: “I watched the ad expecting to like it but I HATED seeing that cross in a church with the red, white and blue flag behind it! This mix of Christian nationalism is abhorrent to me. If you’re Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, agnostic or atheist, this commercial doesn’t give a sh*t about you. This is America and Christianity – and that is one of the big problems fueling the ugly stuff happening now in the USA.”
Wheeler continued: “I noticed the crucifix immediately. Even though the US is in large part Christian, this commercial turns its back on the rest of us who aren’t. There’s too much of that going on already and although it is subtle enough that many people might not make the conscious connection, it just reinforces the divisiveness we are plagued with.”
As Wheeler has pointed out, the issue of Christian Nationalism – an insidious union of patriotism and Christian belief that ties the two together until it’s impossible to determine where one ends and the other begins – must also be taken into consideration. This underestimated and extremely dangerous phenomenon was thrust into the spotlight on January 6, when a group of insurrectionists invaded the U.S. Capitol with an array of evangelical paraphernalia.
Clearly, the choice to use a specific place of worship to represent the geographical center of the contiguous United States created a problem. Most likely, the town of Lebanon didn’t have a mosque, a synagogue, and other places of worship, and even if it did, it wouldn’t have been possible to use them all in the commercial on account of the way it was written, centering the story on that particular church. So they should have left it out.
I found it ironic that neither the Boss, who is known to be a liberal and was critical of Trump and his policies, nor anyone in his entourage including the communications manager at FCA, Olivier Francois, who played a major role in getting this commercial done, figured out that this message, especially on account of all the crosses – while calling out for reconciliation and reunification – was also a sort of melancholic memory of an imaginary time that was, just like the Trump’s supporters’ slogan, “MAGA” (Make America Great Again), a time when the United States “belonged” to white Christian people.
Journalist Robert Dannin clarified my doubts. He wrote: “On reflection, the Springsteen Jeep commercial doesn’t bother me too much because it is obviously aimed directly at the Trumpsters living in flyover country. Although a little ham-handed, it is nevertheless an appeal for calm made by an artist that many of them like and respect. During the Super Bowl, the majority of the ads are constructed to appeal across race and gender, whereas another category targets a specific sub-group. Chrysler and Springsteen definitely collaborated on the message with full knowledge of the demographics in the potential audience.”
As it turned out, on the right, the choice of Springsteen, a well-known liberal who had frequently criticized the ex-president and threatened to move to Australia if Donald Trump had won the election, didn’t go down well at all! On Jeep’s official complaints site, many customers voiced their discontent and said they’d buy Ford in the future.
On the political left, many pointed out that so soon after a violent insurrection, there’s very little middle ground to be found. “‘Right,’ you might be saying to yourself,” writes Amanda Petrusich, in newyorker.com. “‘O.K. But what about just thirty-two days ago, when a mob of insurrectionists, supported by elected Republicans, invaded and debased the Capitol, while threatening to execute the Vice-President and others?’ Whether or not the Jeep commercial inflates your sense of national unity will likely have something to do with whether or not you’ve fully metabolized that event and have somehow – bless you -already arrived at a place of magnanimity and healing.”
Until now Bruce Springsteen had never endorsed any product, and the Jeep commercial was filmed just a week before the LV Super Bowl was to take place, in Tampa Bay, and that underscores how unexpected his decision was.
Interviewed by Variety, Olivier Francois, chief marketing officer of Stellantis, the large automaker behind Jeep, created last month by a merger between Fiat Chrysler Automobiles and Groupe PSA, said that this commercial “Is the triumph of perseverance and stubbornness.” The executive explained he’s spent the past ten years suggesting potential ideas and concepts to Springsteen’s longtime manager, Jon Landau, to no avail.
Quite unexpectedly, Steinberg writes, “Springsteen decided he liked the script and agreed to do something with Jeep, insisting that the concept would have to be very spiritual, says Francois. ‘He looked at this as a prayer and he didn’t want the music to distract from that.’ So Springsteen opted to contribute a score instead, with Francois requesting the music finish on an upbeat note after the artist’s voiceover finished.”
Springsteen “was 100% sincere, and honest and authentic. This is an attempt to contribute, to heal. This is not an attempt to pick a side,” says Francois. Springsteen “felt it was time for him to be this guy in the middle of America, talking to America from this little chapel in the epicenter of America, and stand for the middle and nothing else. I hope, really hope, that this will be understood,” he says, adding: “We acted in good faith, and as good people, and trying to do this thing for the greater good. Now, it will be in the public domain and we will see what happens, but I have no regrets.”
As happens with any Super Bowl ad, the creators of the Jeep commercial had no way to control how critics would judge the ads and viewers perceive or discuss them on social media.
It’s often said that if you manage to disappoint and infuriate everybody, you must be doing something right. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case for Bruce Springsteen’s Super Bowl ad for Jeep: albeit being a beautiful video, from a communications viewpoint, “The Middle,” has turned out to be an unmitigated disaster.