Ad Report Card

The Magic Land Where Race Doesn’t Matter

In TV commercials, everyone can get along.

Where everybody gets along Can’t we all just get along? When Rodney King asked this question in the wake of the racially charged L.A. riots, the answer seemed to be no, we can’t. But whatever you make of race relations in America a decade later, there is actually one place where folks of all backgrounds have always mingled peacefully and effortlessly, in perfect indifference to ethnicity and social background. That place is commercials. There, mixed-race friendships are commonplace, the tension of difference is absent, and we are all united in our goal of obtaining whatever it is that’s being advertised.

All of which makes a recent Impala ad rather fascinating. You can watch the ad above, but if you haven’t seen it, hold off for a few paragraphs.

Here’s the scenario. On a gritty-looking street corner sits an old Impala, top down, with a driver and three passengers. All four are young black men. They wear urban styles and hard looks. Pulling up beside them is another Impala. A newer model. Behind the wheel is a white woman—a yuppie type. The only sound is hip-hop music. The b-boys are doing some subtle head-bobbing in time to it; the driver, in a knit cap and shades, turns his head to give Ms. Yup a long look. The guy riding shotgun stares at her, too. The woman glances back quickly, but mostly keeps her eyes straight ahead, tapping the steering wheel. There seems to be no one else around.

What do you make of this scenario? Is this woman in the wrong neighborhood? Is it some sort of Bonfire of the Vanities thing? You may now watch the ad if you wish.

What happens next is that the woman pulls away and takes a left turn. And … the hip-hop goes with her. It was coming from her car, not the guys’. As for them, they’re still sitting on the corner and, we realize, waiting for the weather report on the car radio.  “Whatever your groove,” an announcer says reassuringly, “we’ll be there.”

So, as usual, all is well in ad-land, where appearances often deceive and where deep down we are all the same. This is not a path-breaking conclusion; it’s standard procedure. The switcheroo—in which Dad turns out to be more with-it than we thought, or the kids are only sneaking out at night because they’re planning a surprise party for Mom—is also familiar.

But the route that Chevy took us on to get back to Everything Is Fine territory is surprising to say the least. In setting up the viewer, Chevy has done everything but put in street signs indicating that we’re at the corner of Florence and Normandie. We’re pretty clearly invited to think of the guys in the car as music-blaring outsiders who represent a vague threat to a (presumably) virtuous white woman. For the punchline to work, in other words, we’re asked to spend a few seconds thinking the worst. It’s pretty startling.

It’s also, I have to admit, pretty riveting. The first time I saw this ad I really couldn’t imagine where it would go—was the white woman smugly indifferent to a menacing glance because at the end of the day she has a better car? But no, of course not, Ms. Yup has no problem with anybody. She’s enlightened. In fact, she’s totally down with black culture! What a relief! Perhaps the look from the guys in the car was simply informed by their surprise at finding a virtual soul sister with consumption patterns much like their own. But of course in commercial unreality, that’s no surprise at all—this is the one place where everyone always gets along.