I tend to point out the negative in advertisements. Maybe I'm just a grouchy pessimist. Maybe it's just easier to point out negatives.
Whatever it is, I'm setting that aside to look at two commercials through a different lens.
First is the famous Chrysler commercial from the 2011 Super Bowl:
This ad garnered a lot of praise. It won an Emmy for best commercial of 2011 and scored five awards at the Cannes Lions 58th International Festival of Creativity. It was widely hailed as a successful attempt to re-brand Chrysler and has been attributed for increased sales, especially of the Chrysler 200 featured in the ad.
Next is the recent ad from Chipotle:
This ad first aired during the Grammys this year. Though it has been the subject of some controversy from agricultural groups who don't like their portrayal, it has largely been hailed as a success and is enjoying many views with positive feedback.
Both of these ads deserve thorough rhetorical analyses in their own right. The Chrysler ad is a remarkably well thought-out and masterfully executed display of rhetorical tropes. From the use of the hand imagery as synecdoche for America's work ethic to the choice of Eminem as a metaphor for Detroit (and Detroit as a metaphor for America) to the style of the narrator's gravelly, everyman voice to the combination of Eminem's angry, defiant rap music with the classy, moving music of the choir, this ad delivers.
Likewise, the Chipotle ad does an excellent job of using simplicity to break down a complex argument. Choosing stop animation cartoon makes what happens to the pigs possible to show without distracting from their argument (you couldn't have shown this ad with real pigs in real factories without turning it into a completely different message). The choice of Willie Nelson and the lyrical selection of Coldplay's "The Scientist" are superb. The use of the farmer as a stand-in for Americans that allows the viewer to take responsibility for changing the future of farming and consuming without having to feel guilty for the past is a brilliant move (because guilt makes people defensive, and defensive people don't buy your products or listen to your message).
All that aside, though, I am most interested in what these ads indicate about consumership and public ethos. In both of these ads, the primary narrative has nothing to do with the product. The story of the Chrysler ad is the story of an American city that has been written off as a failing has-been that comes back to prosperity through the American dream of hardwork and ingenuity. The story of the Chipotle ad is a farmer who embraces scientific advancements and gets caught up in a whirlwind of rapid changes that ultimately leaves him depressed and without control over the highly technical (and morally questionable) process of farming until he decides to do something about it. Both of these ads feature a prominent protagonist (Eminem-as-Detroit/the farmer) who stand up to adversity (recession/technology) that works against their moral imperative (hard work/sustainability). Ultimately, these final moral imperatives become the overarching themes of the commercials. We recognize this problem, but we--just like the protagonist--can overcome by embracing our morals.
But what does that have to do with the viewer? Assuming the viewer is not a farmer or a rags-to-riches rap star, there's little that s/he can do to enter this story, to be a part of the change. But the ads give them an in. Buy the Chrysler 200. Eat at Chipotle. You too can be part of this transformation, and all it takes is opening your wallet, making the right purchases.
Sure, this message is harnessed to directly benefit the companies that produced these ads. That's evidenced by the high economic investment they were willing to make in creating these ads and then buying time in very costly venues to premier them. But it does something else, too.
Ads like these make the connection between purchase decisions and the larger culture apparent. I'm not judging the merit of the claims (I don't know if buying a Chrysler 200 actually helps Detroit (and thus America) recover or if buying Chipotle actually helps sustainable farming overcome big agricultural businesses), but I do think the point that these commercials make is a very important one that we don't think about often enough.
What you buy impacts the world around you. Consume ethically.