Why the Dylan ad was disturbing

Bob Dylan, performing here in 2012, appeared in a Super Bowl commercial for Chrysler.

Story highlights

  • Ruben Navarrette: Super Bowl ads fill void of officials refusing to be provocative
  • Navarrette: Bob Dylan's ad for Chrysler promotes wrongheaded protectionism
  • No jobs in today's global market are "reserved' for Americans, Navarrette says
  • He says Chrysler is hypocritical since it's now owned by Italian carmaker Fiat

It used to be that our elected officials could be counted on to pull us out of our comfort zones with creative and provocative statements on the critical issues of our time. They would challenge us and force us to think deeply and defend our beliefs.

Not anymore. That sort of loose talk can alienate folks and cost you campaign contributions. So today, that role of political provocateur is filled by, of all things, Super Bowl commercials.

The most controversial and important advertisement for this year's championship game is not that multilingual Coca-Cola ad that everyone is talking about, the one that caused so much needless angst in the culture wars and has nativists threatening to boycott the soft drink maker.

The more significant, and more troubling, spot in this year's assortment of Super Bowl ads didn't use multiculturalism to sell soda. It used protectionism -- along with patriotic references to "American pride" -- to sell cars. Specifically, the idea was to sell cars made in the United States and, even more to the point, cars made in Detroit by Chrysler.

Ruben Navarrette

The commercial veered off into the surreal when it cast Bob Dylan as an anti-globalist. Channeling the kind of small-minded protectionism you heard from union leaders during the debate over the North American Free Trade Agreement, a voice urges you to support the home team and buy American.

"Detroit made cars," the narrator says, "and cars made America." Dismissing foreign imports, he says, "you can't import the heart and soul of every man and woman working on the line."

So "import" is a dirty word? Well, maybe not. The car featured in the commercial is the Chrysler 200, which is being billed as "America's import." What in the world does that mean? How do you "import" something that is made in America?

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This could be a case of Chrysler trying to be too cute. The company knows that -- from handbags to shoes to wines -- imports are popular. So it's trying to use the popularity of that word to package its car as a domestic import? What a paradox.

The secret ingredient behind all this workmanship? "American pride."

Yet here is the question that the commercial doesn't answer. Is this American pride an asset, or a liability? That is, a good thing or a bad thing?

The message is that American pride is undeniably good because it gives one the satisfaction that comes from crafting a fine automobile. Still, the truth is that it has a bad side as well. It's that pride -- the sense that we're better than everyone else -- gets in the way of competing with the rest of the world. We think we're entitled to make cars for as long as like, and at the wages that we demand and deserve. Why? Because we're Americans, and we're proud -- too proud to settle for less.

Finally, as Dylan walks into a pool hall -- radiating cool -- his apparent voice-over goes in for the kill.

"Let Germany brew your beer," he says. "Let Switzerland make your watch. Let Asia assemble your phone. We will build your car."

The spot seemed like a union-produced video designed to recruit new members. Not that the commercial wasn't well made. It was. But it was still a bad idea, and it conveyed a potentially harmful message.

Millions of Americans tune in to watch the Super Bowl. We need our countrymen to understand that no jobs are marked "reserved," just for them, like tables in a restaurant. They have to compete in the global marketplace. It doesn't help them to try to close off foreign competition.

Ironically, the people who run Chrysler -- or rather used to run it -- understand this principle well. You see, the company was recently sold to the Italian carmaker Fiat. When the company went up for sale, the original owners could have insisted that the buyer be American. You know, American pride and all that. But it didn't. Instead, company officials entertained offers from abroad; in fact, you could say that the owners "imported" prospective buyers. And when a deal was finally struck, the sale went to a foreign company. How about that?

The United Auto Workers union owned 41.46% of Chrysler, a stake that Fiat recently agreed to buy. So while the union extols the virtue of U.S. labor, it has no qualms about accepting money from abroad.

When they put up a "For Sale" sign, the former owners of Chrysler looked all over the world for the best deal. And now that it's under new management, the company wants to discourage car buyers from doing the same.

That's wrong. And it's going to take more than a slick ad to make it look right.

But one part of the commercial rings true, and it takes us back to Dylan. It turns out that maybe casting the iconic musician in this role wasn't a stretch after all. Music writers and others who have followed his career in recent years have detected, as early as 2006, a growing opposition to globalization, or at least an unease about its effects on U.S. workers.

So it's silly for some people to be talking about how Dylan "sold out" by making this commercial. He didn't. He is where he's long been on this issue. It's just that Chrysler finally caught up to him.

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