What we talk about when we talk about farmers in television commercials is Dodge. Specifically, the truck-maker’s "So God Made a Farmer" Super Bowl ad, which raised hackles and drew tears in equal measures, depending on what corner of the Internet you frequented in the days following the game.
The commercial, however, fits into a larger trend in advertising: ads that lean on that trusty American archetype, the farmer. Whereas the Dodge spot was all mud-streaked boots and farming implements, more the trappings of a farm than the actual land or work itself, a number of fast-food businesses have turned to shots of their suppliers standing in their fields to remind the know-your-farmer set that, hey, our food comes from actual farmers too!
Which begs the question: What is an actual farmer? How does an actual farmer differ from a farmer who’s judged to be guilty by association with Big Food? Do we know a good farm when we see one? Or is a man crouching in a field of lettuce, talking about how much he loves growing lettuce and how much he loves Corporate Chain X enough to turn the subconscious “Oh, a burger made with that very lettuce must be good for me” switch?
On my way to visit a winery in California’s Santa Ynez a few years ago, I spent a gorgeous afternoon driving the narrow, twisting roads that cut across wooded areas, acres and acres of grapevines and large expanses of pasture. With gnarled California oak dotting the expanses of grass, the scattered cattle grazing in the field next the winery gate were chewing their collective cud in an impressively pastoral scene. If there are happy cows in this world, surely that herd must be counted among them.
According to the winemaker, the meat from those grass-fed cows was all sold to McDonald’s. How could the burgers be bad for you, he asked, if they came from cattle that lived like that?
Seducing viewers to ask such questions seems to be the underlying goal of a series of ads McDonald’s started running in 2011. The spots have visited the likes of a father-daughter potato farm in Washington, a lettuce supplier in Salinas, California, a family of cowboys in the Marlboro Man/Richard Prince mold in Illinois. The latest, which builds on the company’s new Marine Stewardship Council “Certified Sustainable” seafood labeling, was shot on an Alaskan fishing boat that supplies McDonald’s with wild-caught pollack for Filet-o-fish sandwiches and the new McBites.
From the title, “The Last Frontier,” to the cutaway to a screaming Bald Eagle (perched on a cross, no less!), a certain brand of American Exceptionalism permeates the minute-and-a-half spot. The boat, which plies the waters of the Bering Sea (which Putin stares over from the opposite, Russian shore), is called “Defender.” But the tone is softened by the somewhat mystic environmentalism of fisherman Kenny Longaker. “If you take care of the ocean, it takes care of you, and it’s been really good to me,” he says over a shot of a dramatic fjord.
I’d buy the fish Longaker is selling. And I’d gladly eat beef from cattle raised on those wine country pastures. But driving past the feed lots at Harris Ranch, the largest cattle-confinement operation in California—and a longtime McDonald’s beef supplier—always leaves me debating vegetarianism. My reading of bovine body language is undoubtedly pure anthropomorphizing, but my passing-by-at-75-miles-per-hour opinion of the feedlot herds is that they’re woefully depressed—and the research on the physical state of such cattle supports my inclination to not eat that beef.
So it’s a question of what narrative you buy into: That of the fourth-generation lettuce farmer, or the stories of fields left to rot, of backbreaking, underpaid labor, of salmonella contaminations and other instances of food-borne illness.
But even if the farmer is used as an emotional manipulator—to sell trucks and fast food alike—this is a more transparent means of marketing fast food than hot chicks eating sandwiches and the like. Which suggests that activist efforts to reveal the far less pastoral places where some of these ingredients come from are working.
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Willy Blackmore is the food editor at TakePart. He has also written about food, art, and agriculture for such publications as TastingTable, Los Angeles Magazine, The Awl, GOOD, LA Weekly, The New Inquiry, and BlackBook. Email Willy | TakePart.com