Photo Essay

Twilight  Longings: Little Red Volvo Ad

by Mark Auslander

cairn1 Students in my American Culture seminar  (“New Frontiers: Power and Fantasy in American Culture”) recently directed me towards this latest twist in mass culture’s perpetual reworking of the “Twilight” old growth Northwest forest mythscape, the recent Volvo S60 R-Design “Little Red" commercial, at:

The ad builds on Volvo’s product placement in the Twilight Saga films, in which the upper class vampire Edward drives a Volvo S-60 through these dark, moody woods.

The ad opens with a red Volvo S60 driving through the familiar nocturnal rain forest of Twilight fame. Portland-based Laura Gibson performs a seductive cover of Sam Sham and the Pharoahs’ 1966 hit, “Lil Red Riding Hood”: Hey there Little Red Riding Hood /You sure are looking good /You're everything that a... Big Bad Wolf could want. The scarlet Volvo brakes in front of a menacing, growling wolf. The car revs its engines, the wolf backs off, and the car continues its journey. Cut to inside the car; the handsome bearded driver says to the little girl behind him, in a bright red hood, “What does the Wolf say?” To which she responds with a howl.

The song and commercial both give a knowing nod to Bruno Bettleheim’s well-known reading of the fairy tale in The Uses of Enchantment: the red hood signals the girl’s transition to menarche and sexual maturity, and the wolf’s threat of devouring is a coded allusion to sexual congress. The ad thus seems equally geared to male and female demographics. For men, the car promises to conflate a reassuring image of paternal, nurturing competence with edgy aggressiveness; for women the car promises an erotic, seductive charge. The underlying imagery is perfectly consistent with the sexualized landscape of Twilight, intertwining sexual awakening with oral aggression (not to mention elite, refined commodity consumption). Indeed, the little girl in the car’s backseat, as a Bella-in-training, might be seen as equally drawn to her Volvo-driving bourgeois-yet-cool father (in the structural position of Edward) and the wolf-shapeshifter, Edward’s perpetual rival the Native American Jacob.

Most intriguing, for those fascinated by the symbolism of the “Cascadian” coastal wilderness, is the ad’s positioning of the Volvo in the Olympic-ish rain forest. As cultural theorist Pete Richardson has argued, as the most cloud-covered biozone in North America, the Pacific rain forest is the archetypal topos of our waking dreams, suspended between unconscious drives and the tantalizingly near-fulfillment of fundamental fantasy. (The rain forest also makes an appearance in Audi's vampire-themed Superbowl ad,

which evidently conflates Twilight and True Blood imagery.)

How striking that the Volvo ad’s descent into the psychic depths of the wild depends on a sophisticated piece of automotive technology. In this latest twist on Leo Marx’s classic American “Machine in the Garden,” the mechanical takes us not into utopian paradise but into the menacing territory of nightmare, while also promising a safe highway back to our waking lives. As in the Twilight novels and films, this logic of psychic descent and ascent “works” through conflating the moody outer wilderness of the woods with sophisticated class privilege: only the special (sparkling?) kind of people who drive the Volvo S-60 can become one with their unconscious longings while safely finding their way back to the daylight.

This photo essay was originally posted on Mark Auslander's blog at: Cultural