Should we cheer the Darth Vader kid?

Among my favorite ads during the Super Bowl was Volkswagen’s “The Force” commercial, featuring a child in a Darth Vader costume trying to use “The Force” on everything around him, and adorably failing until his dad helps out with a Volkswagen Passat:

(My other favorite commercial, for entirely different versions, was Chrysler’s cinematic – if misleading – ode to Detroit.)

I love little kids, and watching the Darth Vader kid run up against the limits of imagination was adorable. And almost 25 million YouTube views and countless Super Bowl ad ratings agree with me – it’s a great commercial.

Which is why I was intrigued to see someone arguing the opposite: the reminder that it’s just a commercial trying to get us to buy cars, that it represents one giant corporation licensing the intellectual property of another giant corporation for that purpose, and that hey – Darth Vader is a supervillain who uses his force powers to kill and destroy, so why are we cheering for this kid?

I want to explore a couple of Devin Faraci’s arguments in more detail. First, Faraci pours cold water on our belief – amplified to a fever pitch at Super Bowl time – that commercials can be art: “because we, as a nation, have just decided to roll over and let commercials be the most important elements of our culture, this is becoming an actual national ‘moment.’”

Are commercials “the most important elements of our culture”? I don’t think I’d go that far, but he certainly has a point about how we look at advertising. Deluged with it everywhere we turn from the first time we learn to listen and read, by the time we’re adults we’ve become cynical about advertising. But at the same time, after so many over-repeated ads have blended together, the well-made ones jump out at us. Should we appreciate a “1984” for being a cut above the rest, for speaking to bigger ideas even if in the crass aim of selling a product?

I don’t think it’s wrong to appreciate well-made commercials as art as long as we don’t lose track of their essential nature. After all, a lot of art these days is almost as commercialized as television advertising.

Faraci also argues that the things we appreciate in the Volkswagen commercial aren’t art, they’re manipulations of our emotions:

… the whole point of the ad is to manipulate you into feeling good about something by crassly using two other things that make you feel good - in this case cute kids and your fond memories of Star Wars. … it’s aimed square at 30 and 40 somethings who grew up with the original Star Wars and see passing it on to their kids as a sacrament. And all of that feeling good just happens to rub off on the Volkswagon at the end.

This is true! People like me (though I’m far from a 40-something) like the commercial precisely because it includes two things I like: kids and Star Wars. (And, Faraci notes, by using Darth Vader the commercial focuses specifically on the original trilogy, which is much more unambiguously something to like.)

Faraci goes on:

It feels like a maudlin bit of manipulation, and there’s no honest emotion in it. Of course honest emotion is antithetical to a commercial - being emotionally honest in an ad could possibly turn off a segment of the audience. Pandering, however, and lowest common denominator feelgoodism are perfect to sell you a product - or in this case, a brand.

But imagine if this same 1-minute video clip were not a commercial but a short film, and the brand of the car wasn’t stated. All those things would still be true – it’d be using our like for small children and Star Wars to make us feel good. But it wouldn’t be in the aim of promoting a product, and it’s hard to see anyone but the most cynical commentator reacting harshly to it. Does adding in the commercial element really make it so revolting? I think it’s reason to pause – especially if after watching it you feel more interested in buying a Volkswagen. (I may feel a little more warmly about the Volkswagen brand because of this, but I doubt this commercial will do anything to push Passats on me.)

Again, keep in mind that a commercial is trying to sell you something, and there’s no reason you can’t appreciate its artistry in selling it.

Finally, Faraci argues that a kid in a Darth Vader costume shouldn’t be making us feel good in the first place.

Darth Vader is a villain, and not just any villain. He’s a genocidal maniac, one who blew up a whole planet. And the kid is playing him as a villain - he’s trying to choke the dog, for instance. And the car itself is the product of real world villainy: Volkswagen was founded in 1937 by the German Labour Front, the Nazi trade union, and got its name from Adolf Hitler himself, who wanted to create a state-sponsored car for the people - most German cars at the time were luxury models and the German people couldn’t afford them. During the war Volkswagen made military vehicles.

Of course today Volkswagen makes fine cars that don’t run on the blood of Jews, but the idea of superimposing a villain who was fully informed by the Nazi horror on the car that came from it seems odd. Or it would seem odd if people approached commercials with their brains; instead our history is lost to us and we just coo over a cute kid in an ill-fitting helmet, forgetting the atrocities that brought the car and the character to us.

I’m not really buying this. Volkswagen’s distant history is relevant how? The Vader point is more relevant – wouldn’t we rather have our kids pretending to be Luke or Obi-Wan? I’m neither a parenting expert nor a parent, but I don’t think there’s anything particularly wrong in letting kids pretend to be villains – as long as they don’t do anything ACTUALLY villainous rather than just pretending to force-choke the cat. If my kid wanted a Darth Vader costume for his or her birthday, I’d probably get it for them – after a conversation about pretend versus reality.

On Faraci’s broader conclusion, though, I can’t help but agree:

Any time someone is calling you cynical for not liking a Super Bowl commercial you’ve entered a world that Orwell couldn’t have made up.

A bit overstrong, maybe, but there is ALWAYS room for cynicism in the world – as long as we don’t let it overbalance our optimism. Keep both in mind and we should be fine.