by Matt Sheedy
In a recent post, Philip Tite looked at the use of “myth” via images of (mostly) Norse and Greco-Roman gods appearing on the labels of beer bottles. As Tite observes:
The products serve as venues for defining or re-defining the consumer through a conflation of consumer with product. Specifically, these beers each seem to encourage an intersection of the “heroic” with the product (and thus the consumer).
What I find interesting here is how the playful presentation of such “myths” within a space of commodity exchange (i.e., consuming beer) offers a valuable site for exploring how such motifs—and by extension, their relationship to social identities—are generated and made normative in mundane ways.
Reading Tite’s post I couldn’t help but recall a variation of this process at work in a new beer commercial for Molson. Entitled, “The Canadians,” the 1 min 30 second internet ad (which generated over 1 million hits in under a week) follows conversations between locals in Berlin, Dublin, Cape Town, Tokyo, and “somewhere in the Australia,” all of whom share in common an encounter with a Canadian in a bar the previous evening. Here are a few of their exchanges:
A young Irish women quips to her friend, “She sang badly, but everyone loved her. They couldn’t stop cheering for her.”
In Cape Town, another young women remarks to her friend, “He goes into the bar with a tree trunk… the next thing I know he put the tree trunk over his head.”
In Berlin, a women muses to her partner, “[He was] kind of crazy in a good way. He was funnier than you Claus.”
After the telling of these various tales, it is revealed, and in each case to the surprise of the listener, that these fun-loving, endearing and all too eccentric characters are Canadian. The remainder of the ad presents a montage meant to illustrate these particular qualities, with scenes of people sliding through mud, jumping in water with their clothes on, a woman crowd surfing in a canoe at a concert and, just for good measure, two young women on the verge of kissing underwater in a swimming pool–the latter being the sine qua non of beer commercials and all.
While all of this seems to align with Tite’s observation that the “discursive value seems to be in the light, hoppy context of social engagement, where laughter intersects commodified practices and encoded normative structures,” it is not at all clear in this instance what normative structures are being reified or what, precisely, is so “Canadian” about them.
This got me thinking about an earlier, widely popular Molson commercial from 2000, that offers a much more concrete attempt at myth-making in the nationalist imagination.
Entitled, “I am Canadian: The Rant,” the ad opens with a man in his early 30s cautiously walking out on stage to a room full of Americans. As he begins his rant, which ends in a loud crescendo of jingoistic fervour with the trademark slogan, “I am Canadian,” he recounts a number of attributes of “Canadianness,” at first negative and then positive:
“I’m not a lumberjack or a fur trader and I don’t live in an igloo or eat blubber or own a dogsled… I speak English and French, not American.”
“I can proudly sow my country’s flag on my backpack.”
“I believe in peacekeeping not policing, diversity not assimilation.”
“Canada is the second largest landmass, the first nation of hockey and the best part of North America.”
What I find interesting here–once I’ve pushed back the bile from the tip of my throat–when compared with the more recent Molson ad from 2013, is how most of these positive attributes of “Canadianness,” defined here in opposition to “America,” have all but lost their former currency. Given Canada’s role in the “war on terror,” its’ global pariah status on environmental issues, and its’ more recent shift toward federal “tough on crime” policies and stricter rules on immigration, the doxa represented by these earlier claims no longer holds much sway in the social imagination.
Unlike in the United States, however, which I take to have a much stronger mythology of national identity–from second amendment rights, to the notion of a “City on a Hill,” to rugged individualism, etc.–the all too apparent looseness of a national Canadian identity provides a useful example of how processes of myth-making function in relation to things like the ebb and flow of social and economic policy, which is typically generated by the interests of powerful groups.
For example, the myth of the “tolerant” Canadian has ties to certain Cold War developments, such as the peacekeeping policy initiatives of Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson and the “multicultural” policies of Pierre Elliott Trudeau.
Strip away the veneer of these recent developments and what’s left? Hockey is always a favourite, though it’s hardly as revered as American football, and the cold is, well, not so cold anymore, with cities like Toronto regularly reaching spring-like temperatures in January. Despite efforts of the current Conservative government to reinvigorate a sense of British colonial heritage, along with a dramatic increase in militarism–replete with a multi-million dollar campaign to celebrate Canada’s supposed victory over the U.S. in the war of 1812–and a slow privatization of national programs like healthcare and the national broadcaster, the CBC, the field of national mythology seems very much up for grabs.
This may help to explain the shift in Molson’s patriotic ad campaigns from 2000 t0 2013, where myth-making in the interest of national identity has morphed from exalting certain concrete markers of “Canadianness” toward a rather vague and diffuse liberal individualism, where affability and eccentricity stand-in for a much wider range of sensibilities–that is, if you’re young, drink beer, are (mostly) white, can afford to travel and, apparently, like to do things in mud and water.
Matt Sheedy recently defended his Ph.D in religious studies at the University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, and is associate editor of the Bulletin for the Study of Religion. His research interests include critical social theory, theories of secularism, as well as representations of Christianity, Islam, and Native traditions in popular and political culture. His dissertation offers a critical look at Jürgen Habermas’s theory of religion in the public sphere.
Looking back, it seems to me that much of the manufacturing of Canadian myth/identity has been left to the promoters of beer consumption. In the 70’s i became aware that a sense of Canadian pride in our open spacious landscape, cool summer rivers and lakes was almost excursively the domain of Molson Inc. The underlining theme being drink Canadian beer and embrace our free spirit, our natural nature. This was in the time before we feel in love with the idea of a financial empire as per Harper’s energy superpower. In the first case, we we’re bonding with a sense of pride in our hardiness, our comradely, our love of nature, in the second we bond with a more abstract thought, that of money and power.
Hey Matt great writeup. My thoughts exactly!