Nissan is entering the all-electrical car market with the “Leaf,” a name that would have seemed inconceivable ten years ago. The Leaf ad Nissan debuted during last Thursday’s NFL opener is symptomatic of the kind of appeals marketers have had to use in this ideological climate:
The car is not sold to fill any utilitarian need, nor does it have any obvious status value. In fact, the car is only present for a moment, and never drives at all. More than a simple driving machine, the Leaf says something about the kind of person its buyer is. If you buy this new car, it will serve only as a visible index of what a caring, environmentally conscious person you are. When the polar bear hugs the man at the end of the ad, he looks surprised at first, but smiles as he pats the beast’s back. “Yes, if only everyone were like me,” his smug face says. He knows why the bear has come to embrace him.
The slogan (“Innovation for the planet, innovation for all”) isn’t even addressed to the consumer qua consumer, but to the consumer as a member of humanity and inhabitant of the earth. We live in strange times when car ads sound like foundation acknowledgments on public radio. But humanity writ large isn’t going to purchase the car, individual buyers will. Nissan sells the ultimate bourgeois environmentalist commodity: an embrace from a thankful polar bear and the self-satisfaction that comes with it. Unsurprisingly, the pretentiously named GOOD magazine (they of the partnership with the for-profit University of Phoenix) declared the ad “pretty great.” In reality, it’s not so different from this Nissan ad from a few years ago, which consists entirely of a close-up on a pair of bouncing breasts.
The Leaf ad is eco-capitalism at its worst. It commodifies engagement with the issues of the day and attempts to create consumers of citizens. The many questions of interaction with the earth as habitat are reduced to a choice between competing products. We ought not laud advertisements for taking political stands, but rather be wary of the ways in which politics thereby becomes indistinguishable from ads. Gone are the days when Michael Jordon refused to endorse a challenger to segregationist senator Jesse Helms saying, “Republicans buy sneakers too.” Global-warming deniers may buy cars too, but they will buy other cars sold to them through other symbolic means – although not always from a different company. This logic allows us to engage in the most contradictory behavior (e.g. consuming to save the environment) without having to sacrifice any precious self-righteousness. Being an environmentalist becomes very costly in monetary terms; pity the poor who can’t afford to be liberals. When brands become political, politics becomes little more than a series of brands.