February 04, 2006

Commercial hybridity, Super Bowl edition

I was intrigued to read the news that one of the high-profile commercials running during the Super Bowl on Sunday would be bilingual, mixing English and Spanish. Fittingly enough, the ad is for the new Toyota Camry that runs on both gas and electricity, with a father and son carrying on a hybrid conversation in their hybrid car. One article painted the commercial as a harbinger of increased Spanish-English code-switching in U.S. advertising, part of a general trend of companies "probing an undertapped market of bilingual consumers." When I tracked down the commercial on Toyota's website (viewable here), I was less than impressed by the code-switching on display, though I found the metalinguistic aspects of the father-son interaction rather thought-provoking.

Here is a transcript of the conversation between the father and son:

Son: Papá, why do we have a hybrid?
Father: For your future!
Son: Why?
Father: It's better for the air, and we spend less because it runs on gas and electrical power. (Points to dashboard display.) Mira, mira aquí. It uses both.
Son: Like you, with English and Spanish!
Father: Sí!
Son: Why did you learn English?
Father: (Pauses.) For your future!

Clearly the agency that designed the ad tried to make the actual Spanish content of the dialogue as unobtrusive as possible. The son's use of the vocative Papá presents no problems for an Anglophone audience, nor does the father's response of "Sí!" That leaves one sentence, "Mira, mira aquí" ('Look, look here'), as the only bit that might perplex viewers with no knowledge of Spanish. [*] Considering how cautiously the sentence is interjected (it sounds as if it were dubbed over in post-production), I'm surprised that the father didn't immediately translate the sentence for his son into English. But he does point conspicuously to the fancy dashboard display of the energy monitor just in case there's any confusion.

Even if the dialogue only has a light patina of Spanishness so as not to disturb the Super Bowl-viewing public, the commercial is still notable for its metalinguistic foregrounding of bilingualism itself. The son makes the quick connection between the car's hybridity and his own father's hybrid language use. Mixing gas and electrical power is just like mixing English and Spanish! (Out of the mouths of babes!) Previous commercials for gas-electric hybrid cars have played with the notion of hybridity — as, for instance, this commercial for Honda's Civic Hybrid showing images of paint-mixing, turntable-mixing, and so forth, culminating in the tagline, "the perfect mix of fuel efficiency and performance." But the Toyota commercial makes the bold leap of equating the practicality of having a hybrid car with the practicality of being bilingual.

That might be a subtly subversive message for Americans comfortable with the hegemony of the monoglot Standard, as Michael Silverstein has termed it. The message is made more palatable, however, by being couched in stereotypical images of the American dream: the father has "made it" and is now able to provide for his son's future by buying a hybrid car. And the linguistic side of his success story is not so much that he has remained bilingual but that he has learned English — for his child's future. Thus the image of the monoglot Standard remains unsullied, with Latino families happily incorporated into an English-speaking consumer culture.

The creators of these "code-switching" commercials are trying to perform a difficult balancing act. On the one hand they want to grab the attention of Latino viewers with the salient use of Spanish. But the ads apparently can't sound too Spanish, for fear of offending Anglo sensibilities. Better then to fall back on innocuous images of the nuclear family (as with a new bilingual Cheerios commercial which also revolves around father-child interaction). Then bilingualism can be deemed acceptable, as long as it remains in the confines of the family (and only then with the occasional sprinkling of Spanish into English discourse). Then again, the fact that a commercial is emphasizing bilingualism in the midst of the all-American ritual of the Super Bowl is some sort of advance in the public recognition of the nation's linguistic and cultural diversity. Baby steps, baby steps.

[* Update: Count me as one of those viewers perplexed by Spanish. I originally transcribed the sentence as Mire, mire aquí, but Pat Schweiterman and Jena Barchas Lichtenstein have pointed out that the familiar imperative mira is used rather than the formal mire, as befits a father addressing a son.]

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at February 4, 2006 01:35 AM