That 84 Lumber Super Bowl Ad: Disappearing Commercials and the Myth of the Migrant Mother

It’s been almost two months since this year’s Super Bowl, which means that it’s been almost two months since the unveiling of the commercials that aired during the game. Some of these have settled into regular rotation, such as the fun-and-sexy dancing Mr. Clean promo or Melissa McCarthy’s environmental activist Kia endorsement. But as sometimes happens with the Super Bowl ad genre, a few appear to have been produced only with the intention to play just around game time. Since we live in an era when new controversies emerge almost daily, I thought it would be both useful and historically responsible to do a close reading of an ad that was one of the most talked-about commercials of February 5, but has now been somewhat forgotten. I refer to 84 Lumber’s mini-film of sorts, of which only half played to audiences during the actual broadcast due to the network’s decision that the content was too controversial.

Like some of its contemporaries, the 84 Lumber ad touched on current political issues: specifically, immigration debates and the controversy surrounding Trump’s proposed border wall. But it did so in a way that was unique – and, I would argue, provides opportunity to reframe some of the unhelpful conversations that continue to circulate around the issue.

The opening shot presents a mother and young daughter waking before dawn to gather the few belongings they will bring on their long trek north. Their journey begins as a classic migrant tale, a montage that moves them from the comfort of their small mountain shack through heart-heavy goodbyes, an open-air truck ride, and a march through expansive fields. But soon a distinctive storyline begins: a tattered piece of trash – the edge of a white plastic bag, it seems – waves at the little girl from a fence line, and we see that it catches her eye. These subtle moments continue, as she notices the quality of a frayed tarp, a candy wrapper, and a tattered piece of fabric, collecting each item so quickly and in between such harrowing trials (jumping onto a moving train; forging a fast-moving river) that her actions could easily be missed. About halfway through the film, as she and her mom rest, vulnerable in the open landscape, we see that she is beginning to piece something together with these scraps.

If you were watching the commercial during the Super Bowl, this moment is where it stopped and directed audiences to the company’s (by-then-crashing) website to view the conclusion. There, the film picks up at an enthusiastic pace, as trucks roar through a pre-dawn desert, filled with building materials and men ready to use their powerful tools to erect what we must assume will be an incredibly massive and structurally sound vision of Trump’s border wall.

And then, the conclusion: mother and daughter finally arrive at the border, but are predictably stopped by the completed wall. This is where mysteries begin to unveil themselves, as first, the daughter opens her backpack and pulls out a carefully woven version of an American flag, pieced together from the scraps that her ingenuity led her to develop into a meaningful object. She offers it to her mother, who is near tears and about to lose all hope. But then, as she hugs her daughter, she looks up hopefully at a sliver of sunlight. The two walk towards it and to their intense relief, see a door, whose welcoming warmth stands in stark contrast to the impermeable steel gray wall that surrounds it. They test it, push it open, and walk into the bright sunshine of America. This door, we then realize, has been built entirely of lumber (obviously of the 84 type) by the all-male crew toiling through the day to finish their work.

As might be expected, there were polarized reactions to the piece, with many interpreting the company as (wrongfully) condoning illegal migration. Others saw it as a more tepid statement on legal entry into the U.S., since technically, the pair entered through an open door in the mock-up of Trump’s border wall. In a Forbes article published a few days after the airing, writer Will Burns noted that “The political polarization of the United States populace has become a new challenge for marketers. As was the case for 84 Lumber and Budweiser in the Super Bowl, we see a brand can run one TV spot and get two completely different interpretations depending on who is watching and the biases he or she holds.” What is most interesting to me, though, is how these opposing viewpoints on immigration engendered a discussion of the ad that erased some of what was going on in the text itself.

For instance, the lumber company made a carefully crafted choice in telling the migration story of a woman and her young daughter. It isn’t really logical: the construction industry is overwhelmingly masculine in general, and women don’t migrate from other countries to do this kind of work. Much more often, women come to take jobs in the care sector (as nannies, maids, etc.), and do so in overwhelming numbers.

They do this largely because of economic need. In fact, contrary to the romantic mother/child journey depicted by 84 Lumber, many women do not come with their children, but are so desperate to improve their children’s lives that they have to make the difficult choice to leave them behind.  This lack of feasible options – to the point that women have to leave their families in search of economic opportunity – exists largely because these women live where their economies have been depressed by policies initiated by the places to which they migrate. (See also: This useful essay on Structural Adjustment Programs)

In Mexico, for instance, recent forces like NAFTA and the industrialization of agriculture have ensured that a needy population of workers is available for northern export.  In the end, these workers are a part of a larger economic game instituted by their own government, the U.S., and other powerful nations, in ways that rarely benefit the citizens of these places. Typically, if news narratives offer explanations of ‘push’ factors – the causes that compel people to migrate out of their home countries – these tend to frame exporting regions as inherently troubled (i.e., simply describing them as “poverty-stricken” or “war-torn”), rather than situated within larger political and economic relationships.  In other words, we are rarely asked to think that political or economic struggles in one place are shaped by decisions made in another time or place. So today’s migration patterns have been shaped by years (actually, centuries) of policies that arguably should be at the root of addressing any migration “problem” that supposedly exists.

84 Lumber’s ad certainly did not ask us to think about structural adjustment policies. Instead, the messages were much more straightforward, and arguably aimed at a certain strain of anti-immigrant sentiment: these are real people (including the vulnerable women and children of the world); many ‘immigrants’ have good qualities; not everyone is here to take something away from somebody else, but instead to make valuable contributions. And they offered this message through a gendered narrative that reinforced the easily digestible tale of hard-working and morally decent male laborers offering a paternalistic mode of protection for a woman and her child. But I still believe that the commercial was an important moment in the field of representation, for during the most costly ad slot of the year, the company made visible an aspect of the issue that has failed to enter the mainstream political landscape: the gendered patterns of labor migration, a story that leads us to the history that underscores these patterns.

However, a next step is to recognize the way that this important representational moment was almost completely invisible in the discussions surrounding the commercial. And this happened because in order for something to be meaningful, we must have a language for talking about it. That is why it is important to push ourselves to closely examine the text in question: analyzing it for its content, and seeing the new ways in which language is operating to give meaning to our world. But we must also explore the context which produces this language. In this case, to do so would allow us to see that the solution is not simply to build doors, or to open (or close) them, but to understand why these doors are there in the first place – and why someone would need to go through.

Mythologie Monday features short essays on the meaning of common objects, language, signs, and so on. More specifically: we are looking at how meaning is MADE, especially where it is constructed in such a way as to obscure construction. For more on the method please see our first piece in the series.  

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