Rebuilding America Now, “America Soaring”

Ad Analysis
Gareth Williams & Morgan Hess, University of Maryland

Advertisement Context

Donald Trump likes to sound the gong of bringing manufacturing and other skilled labor jobs back to the United States from overseas. At an October 10, 2016 rally in Ambridge, Pennsylvania, on the shores of the Ohio River and just a few miles from the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers in downtown Pittsburgh, Trump reiterated his pledge to restore the U.S. steel industry to its former glory. He affirmed his commitment to bring back the jobs and esteem that vanished when the mills closed more than a generation ago: “We’re going to bring jobs in Pennsylvania…We’re going to bring back steel. Your steel has been stolen from you in this area.”[1]

Reinforcing Trump’s campaign trail rhetoric, Rebuilding America Now developed “America Soaring” as a poignant illustration of Trump’s goals. Initially claiming to reflect a new, positive direction for the PAC’s advertising,[2] “America Soaring” abandons the PAC’s previous focus on the personal and professional sins of Hillary Clinton for a patriotic celebration of blue collar workers. The ad asserts a firm, if vague, pledge to restore the glory of U.S. manufacturing and infrastructure, seeking kinship with the viewer rather than attempting to polarize the viewer against an opponent. “America Soaring” offers feel-good platitudes, ungrounded affirmation, and shallow patriotism, akin to a brewery advertisement. However, keen use of color, character, and tone build an atmosphere that is wistful, but with an underlying optimism. Imagery throughout the ad centers on three themes: hands, tools, and skylines. Utility and strength—of workers, their tools, and their products—are the foundation for returning past greatness to our country. A better tomorrow, a new dawn, may see those hands and tools reinvigorate atrophied industries and provide the foundation for our country to reach new heights.

The ad opens with a spare piano ostinato in 4/4, a stable, peaceful, and hopeful motif to accompany the slow-motion, black and white image of an African-American man’s hands washing under a drizzle of water. The ostinato continues as the image cuts to the serious visage of an older white man in a workshop, still presented in black and white. He is likely a woodworker, given the prominent placement of a compound miter saw and other visible tools, including hammers, brushes, and chisels. It is a live image, but could easily be a sepia photograph, as no motion from the subject disturbs the composition as the camera pans around him to the left. An authoritative, resolute narration begins, “Skilled craftsmen and tradespeople, and factory workers…” as the imagery shifts to a group of workers, possibly in a mill—three men and one woman of varying ages standing in front of large machinery. One of the men holds a welding mask, the workers’ staid expressions and continued greyscale image reflecting the gravity of the narration as directly as their appearance and setting reflect the content. The stable, almost motionless tableaus could be photographs, but are live people. They are still, possibly as their lines or mills are still, waiting to return to work. Looking to the viewer with a challenge to put them to work and let them make use of their tools. They are all quietly confidant; they know the importance of their work.

The black and white image cuts to a low-angle view of a man using a jackhammer to split rocks, shards flying off in dramatic slow motion, as the narrator continues: “…have seen the jobs they love shipped thousands of miles away.” Midway through the statement, the image again cuts, still in black and white, to a white man of undefined trade. He is obviously a manual laborer, given his work shirt and heavy gloves. He wipes sweat off his forehead in slow motion with eyes raised toward something above and out of the frame while a lens flare from the sun is momentarily blocked by and then erupts through the frame of his raised arm. The next image, still in black and white, presents an older, possibly Latino man. His protective helmet and goggles suggest that he might be a mill worker or miner. His eyes are cast downward, out of the frame, as he slowly turns away from the camera into full profile. The narrator intones: “It doesn’t have to be this way; we can turn it around.” These men are working, as evidence by their perspiration and perceptible fatigue, but there is a resignation in their affect. Though working, they are not fulfilled. They are tired, as their industries are beleaguered.

The beginning of the ninth measure of the piano ostinato brings a percussive accent in time with a large flare from a steel mill process attended by workers. The flare includes a hint of yellow and pale orange—the first color seen in the ad. The narration affirms—“It will be American steel…”—as the image cuts to a ladle in a steel mill, its volcanic cascade lighting the darkness of the mill and bringing another hint of yellow and orange to the greyscale image “…just like the American steel that built the Empire State Building.” Higher notes in the underlying ostinato convey the growing optimism in the narration. A tracking shot from right to left along the Ed Koch Queensboro Bridge in New York City, with the Citicorp Center visible to the right, offers the first moving frame. The narrator firmly (and somewhat ominously) states: “…that will fortify America’s crumbling bridges.” (Of note, Trump Tower could appear in the background, but is washed out by flare from the sun—are we to infer the bright rays are coming from the Tower itself?) The frame of the shot appears to be inverted right to left, since the sun is visible and a shot to the south/southwest over the bridge should place the Citicorp Center to the left of the frame, as should the large apartment building visible just beyond the bridge. The flare of sunlight through the girders again brings a wash of yellow/orange to an otherwise black and white image.

This is the first extended set of images without people; the focus is now on the physical America. What is there may be great, majestic, and strong, but these are the relics of past greatness, and they are “crumbling.” Not only is America no longer producing great buildings and bridges, we apparently lack the ability to maintain those left by previous generations. Steel, the exemplar industry that will put idle millworkers back at the presses and line where they belong, will provide the materials to underpin all of these needs. The spare use of color—the initial images are in black and white, with only sporadic punctuations of color—imbues the images with a timelessness and gravitas akin to the marble and shadow of a memorial. It is also the monochromatic scheme of photos and images of the past. When color does come in, it first brings yellows and oranges in a faint wash, as the first rays of dawn.

We see a blacksmith hammering a glowing iron in slow motion black and white, accented by thunderous percussion. The smith is only visible from waist height at the top on an anvil to mid-chest, framing a heavy work apron and bare arms. The first hit brings the whole frame into color—yellow and orange flames in the background, a chartreuse color to walls in the background, and a chocolate brown of the smith’s apron, brilliantly lit by the iron. The smith is a callback to the “skilled craftsman” of the first sentence—so far the “factory workers” have been the only of the initial triumvirate to be addressed. This broadens the scope beyond the steel industry to all of those who will be touched by its resurgence. We can infer that the construction workers who will build the buildings and infrastructure will be put back to work along with the skilled craftsmen. We can mentally connect steel to other industries as well—the automotive industry, certainly, but perhaps also the declining textile industry in the Carolinas.

The narrator resumes, “It will be American steel…,” as the second strike, again accompanied by percussion, accents the change of frame to another tracking shot from right to left. The black and white image follows along a bridge over city neighborhood, as though looking out a car window, with row houses, apartment buildings, and streets stretching to the horizon while the out-of-focus trusses of the bridge flit past. As the narrator affirms, “It will be American steel that rebuilds our inner cities,” the shot fades into full color, highlighting the deep shades of brick, dark reds and browns in the building trim, yellow in distant graffiti, and a hint of pale blue in the sky. The lighting and shadows are from a sun low in the sky, with the bright clarity of a winter morning. It is dawn, and the city is stirring. People are going back to work.

The image shifts to a rising shot of the Empire State Building, viewed from the top of another building to the south, so the Empire State Building appears majestically above the rest of the skyline, save the finger of Trump Tower raised to the back right. The skyline is the first shot shown in accelerated time, as clouds race above Manhattan and the narrator affirms “…it will be American steel…” over a rising cymbal crescendo, foreshadowing a dramatic turn. The image cuts to a black and white low-angle, sidewalk-level view of a skyscrapers, slowly rotating right to left, accompanied by the dogged ostinato and building cymbal crescendo and the resolution, “that sends our skyscraper soaring.” Color washes the image—a robin’s egg blue sky—as percussion marks an explosion in the soundtrack into upbeat, fully instrumented derivation of the previous ostinato. Coloring the sky in pale blue while the streets remain in shadow calls back to theme of dawn, as the rising sun touches the sky before lighting the ground.

Echoing the opening image, we see the black and white image of the hands of a seated African American man resting on his knees or lap—he is only visible from his hands to just below his shoulders. The sleeves of his flannel shirt are rolled up and shirt unbuttoned. As he raises his left hand from off his right, the narrator—now with added intensity—affirms “It will be American hands, American workers that remake this country.” The African American man, now shown from the shoulders up, shows a faint smile on his mouth as he raises a thick pair of welding goggles from his eyes. He is content, and he has been working. Color overtakes the image: greens in the background and beige in the pattern of the flannel shirt. The image cuts to another welder, obscured by a mask as he or she works with the flare blazing, again in black and white until a torch flare brings in subtle color to the background. “We’re going to be working again,” asserts the narrator.

Two construction workers converse at a building site, a third and fourth in shallow and deep background, respectively. Two concrete pylons are under construction and in background—each have lengthy arms of rebar reaching far above the poured concrete—and wooden frameworks are on the ground behind two primary subjects. These workers are using steel to send a skyscraper soaring. They are interacting with one another, not isolated as the worker with a jackhammer was, and they are building, not destroying. The movement is progress, not regress; the emotion is satisfaction, not isolation. Color washes through the frame, bright yellow of the men’s safety vests and helmets and a faint blue in the sky washes out the greyscale. The narrator speaks with great conviction: “We’re going to have great jobs again.”

We see a city sidewalk—likely New York—during rush hour; out-of-focus heads bobbing in a solid sea from curb to the rising cliff of the buildings to the left, and as far as can be seen into the distance, as the narrator celebrates: “We’re going to make America great again for everyone.” Everyone is now active, everyone is going to work. Motion is constant, and the image is in color but not in focus—these are “everypeople”; their identities are not important, their energy is. The image cuts for the last time to another skyline shot, busy freeways below and glowing sunshine streaming through the pinnacles of skyscrapers, overlaid with the TRUMP PENCE MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN! banner, as the narrator concludes: “Greater than ever before. Rebuilding America Now PAC is responsible for the content of this message.”

From monochrome to color, from night to dawn, from idle workforce to strong industry and infrastructure, from economic despair to prosperity. The themes are as strong as the images. The themes and images also recall Ronald Reagan’s “Prouder, Stronger, Better” ad (commonly called “It’s Morning Again, in America”) from 1984.[2] Dawn, bright sunlight over scenes of Americans working and going to work are common to both. While Reagan’s rhetorically asked why America would want to return from a current state of greatness to where it had been four years prior, “America Soaring” longs for a lost, past state of greatness and seeks to return there. In addition, while “Prouder…” shows young and old, workers and farmers, cities and countryside, “America Soaring” focuses on middle aged factory workers and cityscapes. In addition, “Prouder…” cited figures of interest rates, home purchases, marriage, and inflation. “America Soaring” asserts broad generalities of lost jobs and industries, but does not delve into specific figures, unemployment rates, or decreases in construction or other projects. The narrowing of demographics, occupations, and activities within the ad and the broad generalities versus specific figures to underpin assertions renders the ad less intellectually convincing than “Prouder…” Paradoxically, however, that may allow the ad to make a deeper, more visceral impact as the viewer can immerse themselves in the moody, powerful imagery without being distracted by data.

“America Soaring” trades in emotion and impression. Its impressionistic portrayal of American laborers appeals to the sense of wounded patriotism in post-9/11 society, and affirms the collective “what happened to how it used to be” prevalent in Rust Belt cities and their idle industries. Never mind that many of those industries have moved on to an irreversible degree—many of the mills have been razed and replaced by mixed-use commercial developments, after all. Few things play upon the blue collar ideology at the heart of America like a call to take matters into our own hands, take up our worn and weathered but time-tested and proven tools, and build (or rebuild) a country as great as we can imagine it to be. Our skyscrapers still soar, and our strength remains; where we look for our greatness is up to us.

Notes

[1] Kirschman, Lauren. (October 10, 2016). “Donald Trump focuses on steel, manufacturing during Ambridge rally.” Pennlive.com. retrieved from: http://www.pennlive.com/news/2016/10/donald_trump_focuses_on_steel.html
[2] The claim ultimately appears to have failed: of the six ads released since “America Soaring,” only one, “Education,” employs the same optimism and positive tone, and it also uses the same musical and visual motifs, narration, and undefined affirmations of improving society by returning local control to solve ongoing, national issues.
[ii] The Living Room Candidate. (2016). “Prouder, Better, Stronger.” Museum of the Moving Image. Retrieved from: http://www.livingroomcandidate.org/commercials/1984/prouder-stronger-better