Although I wasn’t on the podcast this week, I’d like to use this space to follow up on that creepy, misogynistic Dodge Charger ad. You know, this one:
A lot of people had a lot of interesting things to say about this, but I was most taken by a point that Lee made about how this spot tries to sell something we generally consider lame. I don’t mean the car—I mean the behavior. The compound protagonist is a man going through mid life crisis, who tries to recapture his lost youth/freedom/testicles by driving a muscle car. The motto at the end was “Man’s… last… stand!” but it might as well have been “Compensate… for… something!“ This is not, generally speaking, behavior that your audience is going to want to emulate. Even the guy who is interested in buying a muscle car to compensate for something probably doesn’t want to think too hard about his motivations.
Are we to understand, then, that the add is targeting mid-life crisis sufferers who are so far gone that they just don’t care anymore? Or is it targeting aging hipsters who think that the crisis-of-masculinity is going to be the next trucker hat, making this the first ironic muscle car?
Side Note #1: There was some talk on the podcast about what a cigarette ad from the same agency would look like. I imagine something like this: “I will get out of breath when I take the stairs. My fingernails and teeth will be stained. I will have a precancerous tumor forming in my larynx. And although I know all these things, I will still smoke… addiction’s a bitch.” [Music blares, cue rapturous smoking montage.] An ad for E-Harmony would end with “… and I will settle, because I’m terrified of dying alone!“ And so on.
The use of Michael C. Hall’s voice takes us further down the rabbit hole. As Wrather pointed out, Dexter is the serial killer in all of us. But it actually goes a bit further than that. Dexter’s narration is modeled off of the narrative voice of the Dexter novels, which in turn seems heavily influenced by the voice Brett Easton Ellis creates for the title character in American Psycho. Just for fun, watch that ad again, and then compare it to Christian Bale’s opening monologue from the film adaptation of Ellis’ book.
Obviously these aren’t the same—Bateman chooses his own routine, and sounds a lot less bitter about it—but they’re similar. I’m especially struck by the little building cymbal roll that appears just as each speech is drawing to a close.
Now, what do Bateman and Dexter have in common? Both of them live according to an elaborate code that they do not, themselves, have any faith in. They understand what a man is supposed to be—just, for Dexter, for Bateman well groomed—and they fill that role. But underneath, they are both slavering monsters. (This is at any rate where Dexter starts out. I believe that his fangs have since been blunted in the name of character development, but in the early going you had a real sense of him as a barely-tamed beast.)
Side note #2: This particular model of the serial killer seems to be relatively new. It is related to, but distinct from, the ultra-suave Hannibal Lecter model (who also tries to fits a certain idea of “what man is supposed to be,” but legitimately enjoys his opera and chianti). It is utterly disconnected from the more popular Buffalo Bill model, where the killer is a sexually conflicted idiot manchild, barely functioning in society even when he’s not wearing a suit of human flesh.
Anyway, the Charger commercial is playing on the Bateman model. We see a bunch of blankly staring actors (apparently all drawn from the Dudes with Really Asymmetrical Eyes Talent Agency), and we hear an utterly calm, dispassionate voice, making lots of “I” statements about the code that they live by, all the while revealing simply through that same lack of urgency how little they values the code.
Only in this case, instead of a mass murderer, the hidden persona is… James Bond? After all, there’s lots of music that they could have chosen. Imagine it with Back in Black: that would have worked fine. But instead they went with John Barry horns. And this makes a fair amount of sense. As Pete pointed out on the podcast, while this commercial seems to be about gender roles, it’s probably really about financial insecurity. And while James Bond is an alpha male who has hella crazy sex, he’s also quite wealthy.
Side note #3: Actually, I’m not so sure about that. In all the Bond movies, stories, and books, I don’t believe we ever see him draw a paycheck, so who knows what his salary’s like. What we do know, though, is that he has a company car and the mother of all expense accounts. That’s what this commercial is trying to sell you on: sex and an expense account.
To sum up—the premise of the commercial, to begin with, seems like it would only appeal to someone whose basic attitude is “Look, honey, I feel emasculated, and want a big car to make myself feel better.” The specific aesthetics that they bring to bear on it makes the message even darker: “Look, honey, deep down underneath, I scarcely qualify as anything you’d recognize as human. The only thing that makes me feel alive is driving this car, and quite honestly, this persona that you think you know? The one that you were planning to introduce to your parents soon? Is a lie, and I only created it because it’s the most efficient way to trick society into letting me drive this car on a regular basis.”