Just Make It: Hard Workin’ Ads

If you want to know what “America got right” — and who doesn’t, what with the news filled with all it’s getting wrong — look no farther than Wieden + Kennedy’s current campaign, “Freedom,” for the Dodge Challenger. The voiceover for the humorous commercial, which reimagines the revolutionary colonists charging the British, only this time in cars, intones: “Here are a couple of things America got right: cars and freedom.”

Want to know the stuff Americans are made of? A far more sober Wieden Jeep Grand Cherokee spot, “Manifesto,” mixes images of skyscrapers, locomotives and welders to remind Americans “the things we make, make us.”

“The campaign is [our] way of making it clear … that we have that personal pride back and we’re creating quality products,” said Olivier Francois, lead marketing executive, Chrysler Group, when the spot broke.

You’d be forgiven for thinking we’re back in the ’70s, when even ads for washing machines tried to turn a nationalistic, made-in-America pride into consumer loyalty. (Soaring eagles were a favorite visual.) Once again, advertisers are turning up the ’tis-of-thee dial — only this time, it’s less about flag-waving and anthems than nostalgia for a time America was a global leader known for good, old-fashioned hard work and craftsmanship.

Robert J. Thompson, founding director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University, says cultural conditions today are not unlike those of the ’70s: economic instability, an oil crisis and a long, intractable war. “This country was once a leader in manufacturing and industry,” says Thompson. “[It] could use a dose of pride in its own work.”

Automakers in the U.S. have never shied away from jingoistic fist pumping, so it’s no surprise several have jumped on the “Go U.S.A.” bandwagon. In “Still Building Rockets,” its first work for Chevrolet, Goodby, Silverstein & Partners juxtaposes retro images of actual rocket scientists with shots of GM plant workers building a Corvette, followed by the car taking off down a road. “While time has marched on and priorities have changed,” says the voiceover, “it’s nice to know America still builds rockets.”

Corvette is ” a particularly American product and the pride in craftsmanship that goes into it had been lost over the years,” says Jeff Goodby, co-chairman and cd of Goodby.

But pushing pride goes beyond the auto industry. Levi’s, which often turns to its heritage in its advertising, last year used Walt Whitman’s “America” to launch a campaign, “Go forth,” about the new “pioneer.” This year’s campaign, “Ready to work,” comes with the tag, “We are all workers.”

The ads focus on the dying, steel-mill town of Braddock, Pa., whose mayor, John Fetterman, is trying to revive it. The Levi’s work chronicles the town and its mostly unemployed, blue-collar residents. The firm is also contributing financially to the rebuild.

“The idea of … putting people back to work is clearly top of mind [culturally],” says Doug Sweeny, vp of Levi’s brand marketing.

“With the unemployment rate still lingering just below 10 percent, it makes sense that brands want to make a point of emphasizing the impact that doing business with them has on the local economy,” adds Ann Mack, director of trendspotting at JWT.

Dickies, another American-born brand with workwear at the heart of its business, also has a campaign, “874 versus,” with a workman theme. Its online component includes videos in which the durability of its flagship 874 work pant is tested at locations including a construction site and a junkyard.

The campaign “is about putting America back to work,” says Rich Silverstein, Goodby co-chairman and cd.

“I like that [the work] doesn’t try to tap a generic, flag-waving, apple-pie version of America, but that it takes an aspect of what it means to ‘be American’ and uses that to make its point,” says Kevin Roddy, CCO of Bartle Bogle Hegarty, New York, an agency that once worked on Levi’s and is now wrapping up its last work for GM’s Cadillac. “These brands have tapped into an American ethic … and I think that can be motivating.”

Does it matter if the products aren’t even made in the U.S. or owned by a U.S. firm? Some say not really.

“When you say ‘Jeep,’ a lot of people think of these vehicles that helped win the second World War. If you’ve got that kind of cultural equity and mythic resonance, that’s one of the things you can go for in an advertising campaign,” says Syracuse’s Thompson. “It’s seldom ever really about the product so much as it is a certain national mythology.”