If you can watch the Ram commercial “So God Made a Farmer” with Paul Harvey’s dulcet voice describing the joys and tribulations of the American farmer, without tearing up a bit or remembering a long distant relative, or thinking of where food used to come from, well, you’re tougher than I am.
Watching that commercial unfold with its unprecedented use of still photography, during the hype and spin of the Super Bowl last February, was a revelation. Unlike most of the other multi-million dollar spots during the media circus, it touched a nerve with viewers who took to social media to tout its feel-good spirit and its creative approach to advertising a staple of farmers and working folk, a truck—that essential sturdy tool to help in the myriad tasks that never end on a working farm.
The 2:00 minute spot is a visual paean to a not-too-distant past, before Wal-Mart and big-box stores and agricultural combines and genetic engineering of food. “So God made a farmer” is, in the words of photographer’s rep Marianne Campbell, “A wonderful homage to still photography.”
©William Albert Allard
Weather-beaten faces, colorful vegetables, working animals, fields stretching to the horizon, were all captured in black-and-white and color photographs that are emotional and evocative. Salt of the earth, comes to mind. These are scenes written by Steinbeck, by Robert Frost: poetic, touching, real as the earth turned up into furrows.
Creative director/group head Rob Baker and co-creative director Jimmy Bonner, of The Richards Group in Dallas, commissioned ten photographers—William Albert Allard, Andy Anderson, Jim Arndt, Daniel Beltrá, Mark Gooch, Andy Mahr, Kurt Markus, David Spielman, Matthew Turley and Olaf Veltman—to capture the still images that accompany Paul Harvey’s words.
These stellar photographers ranged out over the heartland during a three-week period in December and January to capture vignettes of cows in stark, snowy fields, families at work and the small moments that make up a farmer’s day. Rather than slick special effects, big-bosomed women, monkeys or jokes, Ram went old school, using evocative images that unfolded to tell a story that was immediate and relatable, whether you live in the heartland or in a high rise.
Bonner explains, “We wanted a range of photography styles. Our goal was to make the images appear as timeless as possible. That’s a tall order, because no one knows which photograph will become a classic. Nevertheless, that was the marching order. In the end, we had over 100,000 images to find what ultimately drilled down to 35 needles in a haystack.”
The commercial came to life, Baker states, “By the grace of God and Paul Harvey.” The radio broadcaster, who in his heyday had over 22 million listeners (born in 1918 in Tulsa, Oklahoma; he was 91 when he died in 2009), served as the announcer for the spot that featured excerpts from a Carter-era address, intoned as if he were giving a sermon in church. The spot struck a chord with viewers. The conservative pundit’s speech was pared down to its poetic essence, leaving phrases like: “I need somebody strong enough to clear trees and heave bales, yet gentle enough to tame lambs and wean pigs and tend the pink-combed pullets, who will stop his mower for an hour to splint the broken leg of a meadow lark.”
Why Paul Harvey? “We were sitting outside our hotel bouncing ideas back and forth. We wanted to bring farmers more clearly into the ‘Guts, Glory, Ram’ fold and we were searching online for farming history and inspiring words related to the values of hard work,” the creative directors relate. “We found the speech Mr. Harvey gave to the Future Farmers of America many years back. So we talked about how to bring the speech forward, honor generations of farmers and reintroduce it to a larger audience on the biggest stage there is. As we talked more about it, we found that his speech had inspired others to create grassroots videos over the years. We wanted to give it new life, and provide greater craftsmanship to the execution and honor Mr. Harvey’s legacy along the way. We approached all those involved, let them know our intentions up front and sought their approval. Using his original recording of that speech was crucial to the execution. Matching up the distorted beauty and authenticity of that speech with different styles of photography could show the world what it’s like to be a farmer. It definitely takes a certain amount of guts to do what farmers do and this was a little bit of the glory that comes with feeding the world.”