Business Management

Rant: Bob Dylan versus Globalisation

“What could be more American than America?” asks Bob Dylan in his TV advertisement for Chrysler, posing a question that has since been frequently lampooned, and in an advert that has caused many bien pensant liberals and others to cross the singer off their Christmas card lists once again.

The ad has caused a ruckus in the US, coming as it did during the Superbowl, a TV event watched live by over 111 million viewers, and because it seemed to some to glory in US parochialism and ignore the fact that Chrysler is after all now part of Fiat, a company that is iconic in Italy and is in the process of shifting headquarters to Holland.

Supporters ran to Dylan’s defence, however, noting that he has long made an art of disappointing his audiences and (hushed reverence) defying expectations. This is true, of course: Dylan has worn many hats in his time from protest folk singer to gospel preacher, country hick to bluesman, painter and DJ to welder of gates. He has been accused of many bad things, including plagiarism, and was once, famously, even called Judas. It’s also worth noting that if Dylan is to be condemned for “selling out” by giving his name and/or music to an ad, then he has sold out many, many times before, beginning, perhaps, with Fender guitars about five decades ago. He was there leering at underwear models for Victoria’s Secret in 2004 and, two-timing tomato of automobile advertising, he was driving a Cadillac on TV just seven years ago.

All of this should provide a clue that Bob Dylan (not even his original name, of course) is a man who leaves a trail of confusion wherever he goes in the world – and he rarely breaks off travelling that world or creating ever more labyrinthine false leads.

Some might say that this is special pleading though and cite the prima facie evidence of his words. And at first they do sound worthy of indictment:

“Let Germany brew your beer, let Switzerland make your watch, let Asia assemble your phone… we will build your car.”

From somebody else this might seem hackneyed and dumb. But my hunch is that Dylan was mocking the tropes of advertising that feature such arbitrary, manifestly naff clichés (and always use the simplest syntax). As we Brits say, he’s taking the mickey; or as an American might rhyme it, this is Dylan giving advertising a grilling, playing the villain and not really shilling.

After all, Shinola is a famous wristwatch brand based in… Detroit, the location of the ad and heartland of the US automobile industry, and latterly keen craft brewers. I also contend that Dylan was lacing his own script with hints that we should not take him at his word, just as the brilliant literary detective Scott Warmuth has shown he does constantly in his writing.

A clue is in that opening line, the gnomic and seemingly nonsensical “What could be more American than America?” But Google “more American than America” and you find the headline of an article from 1964 in Time magazine about ‘Zonians’: Americans working in the area around the Panama Canal. They are more American than America because their sense of displacement sees them embracing the stereotypical activities of Americans, the author suggests. This, of course, is one of the oddities of globalisation and diaspora: brands are sold on with equity that resonates long after the workers have been laid off. Consumers and politicians buy into odd parochial notions at the same time as they seek the lowest price and a new angle. In technology it’s happening all around us. US companies like Google buy Israeli startups; Microsoft sources some of its brightest brains (and even a CEO) from India; Apple build iThings in China while Lenovo acquires iconic marques like IBM computers and Motorola phones. As Dylan sang in another context, “It’s easy to see without looking too far that not much is really sacred.”

Then there is the background strumming soundtrack to the ad. It is in fact the song Things Have Changed where, if the chorus were played, you would hear Dylan singing that he used to care but things have changed. The song, a masterful depiction of scepticism and doubt, is an inserted reminder that he is beholden to no man and cares not a whit what critics will say.

And finally there are the visual depictions of the United States, itself a country made up of immigrants and created by diaspora and immigration. Its baseball players, movie stars and favourite foods are products of that combination – and so are its cars and music legends.

I think Dylan is suggesting here that globalisation can’t be turned back but that doesn’t mean that a local pride and understanding of heritage and tradition have to be dispensed with on the way to finding a lowest-cost product. Chrysler, a modern, complex business with offices and production facilities all over the world still has roots in Detroit, the Motor City. It may not be technically a Detroit, Michigan operation, or even a US company, but what remains is working on the line and something else intangible that is uniquely American – a spirit of place, if you like.

The “Dylan sells out” affair is a storm in a teacup in many ways, but what the Chrysler ad does is to crystallise the complexity of the modern business world with its hyperextended value chains and restless drive. Like a Dylan song it doesn’t reveal itself immediately but it’s pervasive and intrusive and it has a long tail (11 million YouTube clips and counting). You watch it and can’t help asking questions. Where are the products we consume from? What do brands mean and what of notions of provenance? What value lies in legacy and what, if anything, does authenticity mean? Is there anything that differs a product made in China from one in the UK, excepting price? What happens when we get to the lowest price possible and what does it do for the common good? How come GDP growth doesn’t help provide more people in those countries to be healthy and happy?

Characteristically, Dylan is asking questions rather than providing answers, prodding us in the direction of complicated thoughts by playing a role, and he’s upsetting plenty of people along the way. But for anybody who has qualms about the profound changes in the global economy and what they will mean for the so-called winners and losers, this is important stuff. 


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Martin Veitch

Martin Veitch is Contributing Editor for IDG Connect

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