Baseball is America’s pastime, and it has been since the middle of the 19th century. Americans from all over the US could sing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” without so much as batting (pun intended) an eyelash. For young boys, it is almost a rite of passage into manhood to be able to toss around a baseball with their old man. You could even go as far as saying that baseball is a symbolic sign, or a sign that is purely arbitrary (Peirce), for America. So why did the Volkswagen 2013 Passat commercial advertise a father/son duo who doesn’t possess this American gusto for baseball?
From a denotative standpoint this ad was possibly created just to get a laugh, showing that although this father and son make a mockery out of baseball, it is acceptable because they own a Passat. However, Roland Barthes, studied semiotician, would think otherwise. Barthes believed that we must look at signs through a second-order semiological system, where the sign from the first system acts as the signifier in the second system, which is why the “myth” of the sign goes beyond the denotative level to show what a sign is connoting, or how it connects to the bigger picture. Because this is a Volkswagen commercial, and the Passat is a German engineered car, the myth being undermined is the ideal Americana values of masculinity and athleticism.
The commercial begins with the father asking the son if he has found the baseball as the son emerges from the shrubbery alongside the house. This can be seen as what Peirce describes as an indexical sign which, as stated by Bignell, “[has] a concrete and often causal relationship to their signified.” Common sense makes it seem irrational that the son is just coming out of the bushes just for the fun of it; rather, his act of doing so, while the father says, “Did you find it?” stands as a signifier for the idea that the father cannot throw a baseball accurately and is the one who threw it into the bushes. This is the first tip-off that the father does not possess enough athleticism to simply toss a baseball to his son.
While waiting for his son’s throw, we see that the father is in his work attire. The fact that he is wearing dress pants, a dress shirt, and a tie (later we see that he’s wearing dress shoes as well) signifies that he is a middle class, white-collar worker, but also
that he might not be the most athletic dad in America. His attire acts as a paradigmatic sign, which Rose defines as, “signs [that] gain their meaning from a contrast with all other possible signs.” This advertisement would be perceived differently if the father were wearing jeans and an old t-shirt; he would be connoted as more athletic or masculine simply from the clothes he was wearing. However, due to the fact that he’s playing catch in his work apparel, the father is taken less seriously and is signified as less manly, which goes against American values of masculinity.
The father’s dialogue with his son and words of encouragement further signify that the father has no athletic ability and an overall lacking in sports knowledge. He says things like, “right in the old bucket,” and delivers it like it is an actual saying; he even tells his son that his throw was much better because he “kept his shoulder pointed.” These assurances that the father is rambling off establish the fact that he is not savvy about America’s favorite pastime, further signifying his lack of Americanized masculinity.
Further on in the commercial, the camera changes from being in the yard to looking outside from, presumably, the living room of their house. Watching the father and son play catch from this angle, paired with their location within a suburban neighborhood signifies that other neighbors could, potentially, be witnessing the same crime against a cherished American sport from the comfort of their own home.
Throughout the entire commercial, the Passat is positioned behind the father and isn’t really involved in developing the meaning of the advertisement. This seems interesting and raises the question, “shouldn’t the father be concerned about the son hitting the car?” However, as is later pointed out by the narrator, having the car in the background is supposed to signify the durability of the Passat, and how a measly ding from a baseball won’t devalue the car.
Next we see the father and son tossing the ball back and forth while the narrator says, “Pass down something he will be grateful for.” During the pause there is a focus on the Passat in the driveway that the dad is circumventing to retrieve the baseball. This narration gives words to the very denotative level of the commercial: the father and son may not be athletic under American standards, but at least they have a Volkswagen Passat.
The final bit of narration is Volkswagen’s slogan, “That’s the power of German engineering,” followed by the Volkswagen symbol and the text, “Das Auto,” displayed on a white background. This idea of a German engineered car paired with the denotative level of the ad work to further undermine the myth of Americanized masculinity and athleticism by showing the polar opposite. In this commercial, the symbolic American game of baseball is taken and essentially put to shame by a father and his son who do not have an athletic bone in their bodies. While this depreciates them as masculine, athletic, American men, it seems more acceptable because they do not own an “American” car. Just imagine if Chevrolet put out an ad like this— their foundation of being born in the USA and grown on American values would be compromised. However, this father, and someday the son, own a “German engineered” car, which in some way validates their lack of athleticism or Americanized masculinity because they signify that there is more then just “the American way.”