Our continuing coverage of that one Dodge Charger commercial

… and because I do all this, I will overthink the commercial that I want to overthink.

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.”


14 Comments on “Our continuing coverage of that one Dodge Charger commercial”

  1. Gab #

    So what is a woman compensating for if she wants a muscle car like the Charger, or a muscle car in general?


  2. stokes OTI Staff #

    Well, Freud would say it’s penis envy. But in all seriousness: the sense of defeat, of impotence, of forgotten youth that triggers a midlife crisis is entirely unisex. In real life, people of any gender might try to compensate for that lack by buying an expensive toy. In pop culture, on the other hand, each gender has a proper coping mechanism of its very own. Men get muscle cars. Women get their groove back. As a result, a woman driving a muscle car is less likely than her male counterpart to provoke the eye-roll, the sneer, or the muttered “douchebag.” Nonsense, I know, but there it is.

    The figure of “woman who drives an overpowered car to compensate for something” does not exist in fiction or advertising to my knowledge. Women in fiction who do have awesome vehicles tend to exist mostly as desire-objects for the male characters, and their cars are sort of wrapped up in that role. That is: the car isn’t something she wants, it’s something that exists so that he can want her more. I mean, hell, look at Danica Patrick. Leaving aside the fact that she’s a real person, and focusing purely on the way she’s portrayed in the GoDaddy commercials – which is a horrible thing to do, of course, but just for the argument let’s be horrible for a moment – can we honestly say anything about why she drives those cars? Or about why she does anything at all?


  3. Gab #

    Spot on, and nicely done.

    I’d add that *real* men don’t always feel the desire to drive cars in order to make up for something they feel they are lacking, too. Just as how it’s a pop-culture-phenom for women, it’s one for men, too. (I know you weren’t denying any of this, it just needs to be said, by the way.) Jokes may be made about how a guy is “compensating for something” when he revs his engine, but it isn’t safe or, well, for lack of better wording, nice, to assume that’s what’s going on; just as it’s not safe or nice to assume the only reason a woman has a fancy car or engine or whatever is because she wants attention from men.

    Like the hosts of “Top Gear”- a body would have a very, very rough time convincing me any of them have masculinity issues.

    During the podcast, there was talk about how the narration could also be about work, though. That makes me think, what if it’s actually a proletariat call-to-arms by enlightening the masses of the monotony of their everyday lives, the Charger and climax of the ad being symbolic of the revolution?


  4. Gab #

    And by “*real*” I meant everyday, real-life, not in a condescending or mocking way… Sorry.


  5. Gab #

    Mlawski, that is totally win. Thank you, thank you oh so much.


  6. Johann #

    Seeing all these depressed men (and women in the spoof version, too) makes me want to grab them by the collar and shake them and yell: “If it’s that bad being in a relationship, just get out of it! Go find someone better, or just stay single – ANYTHING!”

    Apparently, I find it hard to stand seeing people who keep living in their own neurotic misery.

    So maybe the solution to the riddle is that the ad tries to appeal to the lazy-in-terms-of-avoiding-necessary-life-changes? The message would be something like: “Your job sucks, your relationship sucks, but hey, even though you are aware of this, you don’t need to do anything, just buy a muscle car and all will be well!”


  7. Sylvia #

    There is so much awesome here. The article is really well written, and that spoof is hilarious.

    Johann raises an interesting point though, what exactly are the two genders getting out of demoralizing themselves? Does going that low emotionally make driving a car that much better? We all do things that don’t make us happy, and sometimes the simple pleasure of driving a cool car is good escape. But if your ultimate escape is driving a muscle car, there should be some evaluating to do. It’s not even that good of a car. Each party is getting something out of this “my life is awful and I put up with awful things” argument. But, what is it?


  8. Jon Eric #

    I was feeling really powerfully apathetic about this whole business, and I think Johann finally put what I’d been feeling into words. Go Johann. Spot-on.

    Also, that parody is alright, but to me it implied that putting the toilet seat down and taking out the recyclables (etc) are things that women only make men do out of revenge for all the things named in the parody. Plus, I kept waiting for the punchline. In the commercial, man’s last stand is the car. In the parody, woman’s last stand is… what, exactly?


  9. dock #

    This may sound terrible, but….Whenever I see this personality model, I kinda laugh at them. Not to be mean, because I know there are a lot of people out there who are depressed for legit exterior reasons, as well as clinically depressed people (who I do feel sympathy for, because “real” depression is a mo’fo’), but I feel no pity for these “poor defeated souls” who are miserable because they have a steady job and a functional marriage. You feel that way, get a hobby. Go running, find a cool jazz or blues club to hang at instead of rushing home to be miserable after work. And heres one I truely believe, but might not be taken as well….just start smoking pot. If your that miserable and trapped, just smoke a bowl and watch some cartoons. And eat some unhealthy junk food. Its the little things, people….and its a lot cheaper than a friggin car.


  10. mlawski OTI Staff #

    @dock: Not to psychoanalyze a fictional character in a car commercial, but it certainly seems to me like he doesn’t have a functional marriage. This dude clearly has some personality issues, loads of pent-up rage, and lady-issues that he probably picked up somewhere a long time ago. And, hey, if this commercial is meant to be speaking to America’s “everyman,” then despite his steady job, he’s likely working fewer hours, receiving less pay, drowning under medical bills, and living in constant fear that he’s going to be laid off like many of his buddies.

    As for your lack of pity for people who are not happy, I do hope you can try to be a little more empathetic. For one thing, you say it’s okay to be depressed “for legit exterior reasons,” but who is to define what reasons are legit or not? Yes, the little things in life certainly help, but can’t a person have a little existential angst over modern American life? It just seems natural to me, given the current economic/political situation and general apocalyptic mood.

    So that’s not the problem I had with the commercial. The commercial is clearly trying to tap into the malaise many of us are feeling, “legitimately” or not. That’s understandable. The problem is when the commerical links that malaise to “it’s your woman’s/feminism’s fault you feel this way” and “go, solve this problem by blowing the little money you have left on a big manly car”–although I suppose that is what a car commercial is meant to do.


  11. dock #

    I hear ya…I dunno I just think its a waste of time and energy to sit around feeling sorry for yourself. I have to imagine if your in the position to go out and buy a new car to make yourself feel better that finances are not an issue. His lady problems consist of minor complaints- disliking her friends, separating garbage and putting the toilet seat down. I could see if he was saying “my wife hates me, my boss doesnt respect me, my friends laugh at me…” but in this commercial theyre acting like daily living is almost unbearable. And if this sad sack is now the “everyman” then I think a lot of American men need to take a cue from past generations and just suck it up and deal with it. I know its cold, but really, there are a lot of people who have it far worse.


  12. Brimstone #

    seeing this for the first time its hard not to just hear it as another Dexter monologue….


  13. S75 #

    That ad is creepy. the chicks version (by narrow margin) a li’l more.

    “I know its cold, but really, there are a lot of people who have it far worse”. Bummer.

    The point is nobody cares, go buy a car or whatever, and drive drunk. Buy coz that’s what we’re here for. Buy. Hide. Deny. Compensate.

    “Fitter, happier, more productive,
    comfortable… still cries at a good film, still kisses with saliva… (the ability to laugh at weakness), calm,
    fitter, healthier and more productive a pig in a cage on antibiotics”.

    But hey, where’s my sense of humour?


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