84 Lumber’s Super Bowl commercial tells the story of a Mexican mother and her daughter making the trip to the United States border and, ultimately, opening a large door in the wall at the border to gain entry into the country. As this journey plays out, we also get clips of a construction crew, working in the desert. The crew has nonwhites in it and, given the central story of the advertisement, I think we’re meant to read these people as Mexican themselves. They made this journey one day, as well. Watch the entire commercial, entitled The Full Journey, below:
Central to Sandoval’s effort to understanding semiotics is a focus on the ways in which a deconstruction of language will alter our historical understandings of social relationships. Sandoval uses semiotic theorist Roland Barthes’s work to guide her own. She notes Barthes’s theory that “When consciousness shifts from perceiving human ‘history’ and its contingencies to perceiving ‘nature…’ the connection of consciousness to what [Barthes] calls the ‘possibilities’ of being becomes subdued, alienated, quieted — even erased” (92,3). In other words, we ought to consider all historical understanding, all of the connotations which we attach to certain identities and modes of living, as historically contingent. They have been intentionally manufactured and produced by white, hegemonic society over the course of western history. This recognition lies centrally in Barthes’s work — without it, we become blind, complicit automatons.
The question I would like to analyze in this advertisement pertains to whether it sufficiently seeks to alter narratives surrounding US-Mexican relations, and, more broadly, the relationship between the US (and, by extension, the globally dominant world world) and less socioeconomically developed, less predominantly white countries. The commercial aired during the Super Bowl, and might have caused an uproar among harsh xenophobes and believers-in-Trump’s-wall alike, as these two people do indeed gain access into the USA. They successfully sneak across the border. And the commercial celebrates this. So in this way, then, 84 Lumber’s advertisement does the work of shifting the narrative around stories like these, stories of people deciding to risk everything to come to the US. The commercial ends with the words, “THE WILL TO SUCCEED IS ALWAYS WELCOME HERE.” plastered across the screen. This could be read as a direct to Trump’s wall, an attempt to shift the dominant narrative frameworks during the most watched television event of the year.
On the other hand, the commercial’s most intimate moment between the mother and daughter happens in the shadow of the border wall. The daughter (who has been collecting scraps throughout the advertisement), takes a makeshift, tattered American flag out from her backpack to give to her mother. The mother looks at it, smiles, and the two share an embrace. This moment, along with the fact that without the door itself, which was constructed by 84 Lumber, an American company, make me feel as if the advertisement, in fact, is celebrating the United States, instead of the folks who are trying to enter it. The commercial does not actually propose any changes to the status quo. It does not, as Barthes would have it, help us reimagine narratives surrounding immigration. Instead, these two women are helpless without the United States, without the industrial innovations provided by “the land of the free,” which ultimately permits the two women entry without much rebuttal or resistance at all. The only American figures in the advertisement are members of the construction crew who built the door through which they walk. In the end, this commercial is one which celebrates American exceptionalism. There is no effort to understand the circumstances which forced these women from their home — instead, our associations of nonwhite folks with destruction and poverty, just like the women themselves, are given shelter here.