By abashfulharvestman and thethirdrevelation
“Oedipa stood in the living room, stared at by the greenish dead eye of the TV tube, spoke the name of God, tried to feel as drunk as possible. But this did not work.” –Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49 (1966)
“By the word reading we mean not only the capacity to identify and decode a certain number of signs, but also the subjective capacity to put them into a creative relation between themselves and with other signs; a capacity which is, by itself, the condition for a complete awareness of one’s total environment.” –P. Terni, “Memorandum,” paper for the Council of Europe Colloquy on “Understanding Television” (University of Leicester, 1973)
And we’re back, here to serve up some Super Bowl XLVI ad analysis with warmth, freshness, and germaneness.
This year, a new record for spending on ads was set: $3.5 million for a 30-second slot. Common themes in this year’s ads included babies, dogs and other animals used as entertainment, objectified women, and tokenism. It was commonly reported in the media that the kinds of ads we saw this year were the result of advertisers wanting to “play it safe.”
A site proclaiming itself the “Super Bowl of Social Media II” went about rating the major ads based on their social media use, using a 4-point Likert scale running from 1–4, negative to positive, with a 1 being called “Antisocial”; 2 “Socially Awkward”; 3 “Socialsploitation”; and 4 “Social Butterfly.” It’s disturbing here that exploitation is being framed positively, coming within the overall disturbing matrix of seeking “sociality” by and with corporations, as if they were people.
Audi — “Vampire Party”
The commercial is for Audi headlights. The young driver accidentally kills all of the partygoers with the product, then, to send the message that he is truly stupid and oblivious, the ad makers have him inadvertently kill himself the same way. Sends message not only that youth are dumb, but that they are narcissistic, and not in the smart, self-serving/supposedly–self–preserving way that baby–boomers are, baby–boomers being the ultimate lords of the Audi. Thus, the ad tries to appeal at least to narcissistic baby–boomers—a demographic which overlaps tightly with its existing customer base—and seeks to pass the torch to youth who want to aspire to this kind of “mature narcissism.” A lowest–common–denominator ad that seeks to exploit the recent young vampire craze. The ad used a Twitter hashtag to try to take advantage of social media and it was reported here by the L.A. Times that “According to an analysis of Twitter postings by Kanjoya, a San Francisco company that uses a computer algorithm to detect emotion in social media posts, there were approximately 4,000 mentions of the hashtag around that time. Amusement was the most common emotion identified by Kanjoya’s system.” It was also reported that use of the hashtag “pushed it to rank as the 8th most popular Super Bowl ad on USA Today’s Admeter.” Currently has 7.1+ million views on YouTube.
Fiat — “Seduction”
Women–are–things, things–are–women message delivered via a female–model anthropomorphization. Stereotype of Italian women as hypersexual is reinforced, coupled with a pro–rape “No means yes” trope, as the woman initially berates the male ogler, but then immediately proceeds to give him a standing lap dance. Certainly no points for originality with the coffee cream to the cleavage. The fact that she’s speaking a language many users won’t understand is coded as positive, the message being that we shouldn’t care or it doesn’t matter what she’s saying, since this is an objectification process. Last line in Italian is “Do you feel lost thinking that I could be yours forever,” suggesting that while she and the car are out of his league, they can be bought as status tokens. While the tattoo on the back of her neck of the car’s scorpion logo presents the allure of danger, she/it are quickly offered to the man to control. Suggests that the most pathetic guy can get the hottest woman and women will participate in, lead, and otherwise support their own objectification and oppression. Anthropomorphizing a small Eurocar with a tall, slender woman seeks to overcome through distraction the stereotypical American fixation on size and power. Like Volkswagen, Fiat seems to be embracing its fascist heritage, in this case going with a rampant–sexism strategy. These are the same admen that did last year’s Chrysler “Imported from Detroit” ad. That ad had that tagline even though the plant in question is not actually in Detroit. Also, they weren’t even talking about low–emissions cars, so we clearly have admen who desire a status quo ante, fascistic and otherwise. Fiat currently has a 58.5% ownership stake in Chrysler, which could increase to 70% through the exercise of further options. Fiat, citing Edmunds.com, claims that the ad created the largest online traffic increase of any of the Super Bowl ads. Currently has 8.1+ million views on YouTube.
Bridgestone — “Performance Football”
The Japan-based “Official Tire of the NFL” does a cars-football ballistic alliance ad where Troy Aikman uses a tech-doped football to defeat the defense of Deion Sanders and other black players making up the secondary. When Sanders protests the unfairness of the tech–doping, one pasty white scientist rebuffs him with a hand gesture and another pasty white scientist mocks Sanders to his face, bastardizing Sanders’ famous celebration dance while telling him to “Giddyup.” Hard not to see racist overtones here. The ad uses the fake–news–segment format with real ESPN host Michelle Beadle, whose show boasts the youngest, most male demographic of any show on ESPN’s various networks, as well as two million social media followers on Facebook and Twitter, all demographics coveted by advertisers. Bridgestone is surely trying to exploit her popularity here, while reinforcing the male–dominated practices of: football playing and watching; the watching of sports shows that feature attractive female hosts; tire-buying.
Bridgestone — “Performance Basketball”
A cars–basketball ballistic alliance ad this time, featuring a tech–doped basketball and one of the many babies of the evening. The tech–doping here results in a supposedly silent basketball. We have to label this and the tech–doping in the other Bridgestone ad magical–realism fails. Ad also features Tim Duncan and Steve Nash, all–time—great NBA players who personify consistent excellence and excellent consistency, and who are known for coming through in the clutch. Perhaps more importantly, they are both late bloomers and overachievers, and that is how Bridgestone is portraying itself. Even though it’s the leading tire manufacturer in the world, Bridgestone slightly trails Goodyear and Michelin in the U.S. market and its brand recognition is not as high. So even though it’s an exaggeration, it boldly casts itself in contrast to the supposed dominant gunners of the U.S. tire world, the LeBron Jameses and Kobe Bryants, Goodyear (which is based in Akron, OH, where James is from) and Michelin (which is a European company and Bryant grew up in Europe). Tim Duncan and Steve Nash are known for their sound fundamentals, James and Bryant for their flash and excess. This overachiever/anti-hype/substance–over–image branding technique is a common one and is probably most familiar in the form where food or beverage products are blind taste–tested. This kind of advertising, which is also a basic form of knowledge persuasion, has been shown to be significantly less effective than the more totalizing “_________ is life/happiness/success, etc.” kind used by companies like Coca-Cola.
The Celebrity Apprentice — “Attack”
Says it’s desirable to attack and retaliate against people so long as you give some money to charity, declaring resolutely that people are going to get “thrown under the bus.” Violates the Pauline principle which condemns the belief that it’s morally acceptable to do evil that good may come. This ad is decidedly unpopular on YouTube.
Honda — “CRV’s Day Out”
This ad is one of the most upsetting of the lot, for its “nothing is sacred” appropriation of the cultural touchstone that is Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. In this telling, Bueller—that rangy, merry prankster of an adolescent—never escapes the suburbs and instead gets bloated and domesticated there, grossly contributing to global warming with his SUV–driving. It’s like he/we have learned nothing. Like your cool role model has become a hypocrite. Like he’s become a conformist man–child not only lacking the grace to investigate his own condition, though the ad gives him the appearance of doing just that, but the sense to avoid proselytizing it as a desirable lifestyle. The conformity is disguised as dissent and excitement, and the conformist as an outlaw. Here the previous push–and–pull of a Cold War discipline–and–punishment has morphed into moral fatigue and defeat; things have not ended with a bang for our protagonist, but rather with Eliot’s whimper. In this context, the movie’s featured quote (“Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”), which Matthew Broderick utters near the end of the commercial, is like a sucker-punch to the gut. At the very end they sub in a Honda for the iconic joyride scene, and while in the movie we may have felt like we were in the car, now if feels like we’re getting run over. During a time when the supply-side economics lampooned in the movie continues to rear its ugly head, this is the last thing we need. What’s next? A Breakfast Club-themed ad sponsored by Kellogg’s? Currently has 14.9+ million views on YouTube.
Bud Light Platinum — “Factory”
A fusion of aseptic, hygienic, and alchemical ideals, couched in an automated universe run on an elaboration of basic food science. Forge–plant elements used to speak to consumers with some connection to, belief in, or nostalgia for, a prelapsarian American Manufactura. This is in service of trying to sell Budweiser as “top–shelf.”
Bud Light Platinum — “Work”
So apparently there are actually people in this Budweiser universe, it’s just that automation has freed them to live hedonistic lifestyles, with Bud Light Platinum the key lubricant and symbol of the society which the staid and rule–bound didn’t make it to. Exploits pervasive, real–world problems and anxieties, namely: that work is never done; that our work lives are routinized, regimented, and lacking joy; that gratification is long–delayed or never materializes. The symbol–beer is the color in a gray world. The ad is brazen and confident in dropping the endogenic song lyric at the end of “Get[ting] a feeling that I never, never, never knew I had before”—basically taunting us with the knowledge that they’re creating a need/dependency in us which we didn’t and wouldn’t have otherwise.
Pepsi — “King’s Court”
Democracy and liberation of the people come via colored sugar–water sold to you by a corporation, set within a reality TV/Lady Gaga costume show setting. Protagonist appropriates the Aretha Franklin empowerment ballad “Respect” and the idea of taking care of business—using none of the original voicing or harmony of the song, rather a dance mix. The deposed tyrant is Sir Elton John, playing on his reputation for being surly and distempered—reportedly due to depression—and his lack of principles, as in his singing at Rush Limbaugh’s fourth wedding for a reported $1 million. Flava Flav here is our black minstrel who represents a past we are uncomfortable with, so he is banished to the dungeon, his hype–man persona appropriated in the process. Both Flava Flav and Elton John are also being punished for transgressing boundaries, for being people of supposed excess. Flava Flav’s timepiece is too big upstairs, but appropriate in the dungeon where his time is controlled by his oppressors. He is also probably being punished for his illicit appropriation of white markers, like being with a white woman, Brigitte Nielsen, and for wearing a Viking helmet. Elton John is being punished because his outfit is too loud and he is flamboyantly gay. Baby boomers Flava Flav and Elton John are pushed off the stage and into the social dungeon because they’re too old and room needs to be made for the (American Idol) youth, the Pepsi allies of which are more likely to move on in this life’s-a-stage(d) competition. Thus, Pepsi is trying to associate itself with what it sees as ascendant pop art and beauty. In the past, Pepsi has wholesale targeted the youth market, essentially conceding most of the older age demographic to Coke. Pepsi looks to be picking up that trend again here. Perhaps very close to the consciousness of many of today’s viewers, to the extent that today’s viewer has very likely considered their own chances in American Idol or at least wishes they had the requisite qualities. Pepsi is still not going as far as Coke in its advertising. Coke continues to do some of the most effective advertising in the world, which can be lumped under the heading of “Coke is life.” According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), Pepsi and Coke “contain high levels of 4-methylimidazole (4-MI), a known animal carcinogen. The carcinogen forms when ammonia or ammonia and sulfites are used to manufacture the ‘caramel coloring’ that gives those sodas their distinctive brown colors….” The AP reports that Pepsi and Coke “are changing the way they make the caramel coloring used in their sodas as a result of a California law that mandates drinks containing a certain level of carcinogens bear a cancer warning label.” Based on California’s risk model, CSPI estimates that the 4-MI in Coke and Pepsi is causing about 15,000 cancers in the U.S. population. CSPI also notes that: “As troubling as the new test results are…soda drinkers should be much more concerned about the high-fructose corn syrup or other sugars used in soft drinks. Soda drinkers are much more likely than non-soda drinkers to develop weight gain, obesity, diabetes, and other health problems.”
Cars.com — “Confident You”
Even though this is an information/comparison site, and it does mention a gas-mileage comparison, relies on peripheral advertising (inadvertently or not, the second head is a direct metaphor for this). Most website ads do. Black men framed as insane and two-faced. DuBois’s double consciousness resolved through white–mediated car purchase. The dismal decade that was the 1970s (here represented by disco music), the effects of which continue to haunt us, is anesthetized through consumption and falsely compartmentalized. Well–liked among people who viewed it on YouTube, probably a self–selected lot who were drawn to its superficial weirdness.
Hungry Howie’s — “Stop Avian Obesity”
Ad for a Michigan-based pizza chain. More peripheral advertising, which is most of what one sees during the Super Bowl. As the Hungry Howie’s buying demographic is mostly college students and other young people, the ad is appealing to the budding conservative and apolitical. That they use the actual phrase “stop avian obesity” in the connected website acknowledges that public health and ecological impacts are real, but believes we should heavily discount them. Ad actually acknowledges that the consumption of pizza contributes to obesity and increases waste. The fat birds are amusing and cute, as, apparently, are dogs (see Volkswagen ad). In a final little touch bound to appeal to that targeted conservative or apolitical demo, the gentleman with the movement says “I saw it on the Internet” in a random British accent, indicating that folks involved in a cause are the most-hated Redcoats, they are stupid, and they are poor at assessing sources for credibility.
Volkswagen — “The Dog Strikes Back”
Overweight suburban dog is upset that it can’t fit through doggie door since its car–chasing is stymied as a result. Solution is individual (exercising within the house by itself), rather than sociopolitical and/or environmental, reinforcing the fit of the individual lens with cars and car culture. Appropriates James Brown. The dog ends up leaving the house, only to reinforce not leaving the subdivision. We’re then deposited in the Mos Eisley Cantina—an everyman’s bar where Vader-might rules. Advertisers really banked on viewers’ affinity for their dogs this year, as the most compelling assertion they felt they could make regarding their product was “Dogs are cute and can be made to do cute things—we also feel this way.” Volkswagen being quite vulgar here in ignoring the contradiction of using overweight/obesity as a setup to sell the all-time overweight/obesity contributor that is the car, a vulgarity only exceeded by its concomitant embrace of its fascist heritage with its Darth Vader and Imperial March ads, shamelessly using family and man’s best friend themes as the bridges. This strategy is working, as friends are already berating friends for changing the channel when such ads come on. Darth Vader > Mickey Mouse?
Hyundai — “Cheetah”
Expected commercial (cheetah races car) confounded and instead we get indiscriminate killing and another commercial where vehicle performance is beside the point or results in the death of bystanders. Driver is unconcerned. Inverts the human–cheetah relationship in that there has never been a case of a cheetah attacking a human in the wild and the species is actually endangered by poaching and habitat loss. In real life, the humans have been the aggressors, not the cheetahs. It is sad that in 2012, with continued fossil–fuel use pushing global warming to an advanced stage, we’re still talking slavishly and seductively about high horsepower in cars. Jeff Bridges is one of a number of top-tier and/or well-known actors who have lent their voices to car commercials as of late, others being Tim Allen, Jon Hamm, Maurice Lemarche, Kevin Spacey, Robert Downey Jr., Bronson Pinchot, Ron Livingston, Will Lyman, Michael C. Hall, Sam Elliot, Liev Schreiber, Denis Leary, Matt Dillon, Richard Thomas, James Spader, Donald Sutherland, and James Remar. In a 2010 AdweekMedia/Harris poll, 28 percent of viewers said a male voice was more likely to sell them a car, versus 7 percent preferring a female voice.
M&M’s — “Just My Shell”
Assertive male stupidity rebuffed by unimpressed female. Exploits sexual tension between men and women and reinforces the anti-feminist stereotypes that women will be frigid and too intellectual, and men will be boorish and hypersexualized. No mention of potential taste of, or reasoning behind, product. Commercial made expressly for popular dance song? Currently has 20.1+ million views on YouTube.
Best Buy — “Phone Innovators”
Appropriates electronic gadget “innovation” and fuses it into a holy grail containing business–work poison. Notice that none of the innovations, except maybe text–to–speech (and that guy believes in technological singularity), actually does much, if anything, to improve life. Reinforces occupational sex segregation by showing only male inventors and then a predominantly female salesforce. Vaguely fascist assemblage at the end. Women not only are enlisted in fascistic enterprise despite its anti–feminism, but will be prominent spokespersons for it, from their sex–segregated position no less. The music similarity with the Dr. Manhattan conversion scene from the Watchmen move is eerie in its explicit connection of otherwise understood–to–be–overlapping themes.
Coke — “Superstition”
One anthropomorphized bear’s football/God/religion is revealed to be superstition–based and fear–inducing. Coke is the tonic for this. Coke is (real) life. The Coke bottle image at the end suggests that Coke is science displacing superstition as the bottle is made/materializes (it progressively appears on screen) out of the calm, confidence, reflection, and technological application (a straw) on the part of the bear on the right. Continuing this, the carbonation graphic coming out of it makes it resemble a frothy beaker. This bookends an establishing shot of heavenly light coming down on the bears. We thus have advocacy of a Coke-“science”-based religion. No mention of the science of global warming and polar bears drowning from lack of sea ice though. The bears watch TV and this is very much an ad proselytizing conformity.
Chevy Silverado– “Survive Apocalypse”
More cars and death. Another dog to boot! Implies that the protagonist was in his Chevy Silverado truck when the apocalypse happened, as he drives out of a pile of rubble. The value of the product is revealed by the end of human civilization. Trades on the specious interpretation that the Mayan calendar predicts apocalypse for 2012. The real-world culture is currently soaked in apocalyptic themes and imagery and this just adds to it. Adds a biblical plague (frogs) denouement, essentially sending the message that the apocalypse is upon us multiply and ineluctably, so don’t worry about cutting back on fossil–fuel use. Calling out Ford probably comes in retaliation for Ford’s fake–press-conference “We didn’t take a bailout” ad (Ford didn’t end up using the funds, but it did request from the government a $9 billion line of credit and a $5 billion dollar loan). Ad clearly borrows imagery from the Planet of the Apes and Star Trek, focusing the cause of the apocalypse on apes and aliens, rather than the burning of fossil fuels. For the partially buried Statue of Liberty in Planet of the Apes, it substitutes a charred Big Boy statue wedged in an alley with his held cheeseburger aflame. That image, and the shameless prominence of the Twinkies product placement, represent a sad failure to take seriously the threat of unhealthy foods and the current epidemic of overweight and obese Americans, endorsing food preservatives as a good ol’ comforting truism. Clear and predictable blue–collar demo appeal with “Beginning of your work day” voiceover line.
Go Daddy — “Body Paint”
Uses objectification of a woman’s body, with women doing the objectifying, and thus qualifies as another entry in the “women leading/supporting/participating in their own oppression” category, this time in order to sell the .co domain to “smart businesses,” without explaining why it would be smart for businesses to buy it. The same type of promised–nudity thing has been running for untold years. Says a website from Go Daddy is akin to a woman’s nipple or vagina. This ad was the fourth–least popular ad among 55 voted upon by viewer participants in the USA Today–Facebook Super Bowl Ad Meter process. It’s also very disliked on YouTube, currently running at 141 likes and 899 dislikes among 295,000+ views.
Doritos — “Man’s Best Friend”
Male homosocial silence about serial murder can be bought with, and is cemented by, tortilla chips that are chemically adulterated. More is better, whether it be murder of that which is not like you and which you are dominant over, or Dorito dust. Think inside a degraded, personal & social diarrhea–inducing bun.