By abashfulharvestman and thethirdrevelation
“In the whole field of mass communication, the ‘hidden meaning’ is not truly unconscious at all, but represents a layer which is neither quite admitted nor quite repressed—the sphere of innuendo, the winking of an eye and ‘you know what I mean.” –Theodor Adorno, 1953
“As [George] Gerbner was fond of saying, those people who tell most of the stories most of the time control a culture. Certainly, in today’s increasingly ‘hypercommodified’ world, advertising tells most of the stories.” –Lawrence Wenner, “Narrative strategies and dirty logics in Super Bowl commercials” in Sports Events, Society and Culture (Eds. Katherine Dashper, Thomas Fletcher, Nicola McCullough), 2014
“I am hearty. I am a delicate work of art. I am of the finest maple, crafted with American spirit and pride. I go back in time. I am ahead of my time. I am timeless. I am ingrained in American tradition, weaving generations past with those yet to come. I am simplicity. I am family. I am a longtime friend. I am Longaberger.” –Advertisement for Longaberger baskets
Bud Light — “Up for Whatever”
We open with deception and a beauty–standard view. The ad is called “Up for Whatever,” but everything is actually tightly scripted, including that you have Bud Light in your belly by the end. Co-opts the idea of fantasy construction and carefully enlists the viewer to be complicit in it. Appropriates the idea of going down the rabbit hole so it can entrap you in its warren. The targeted demo is the coveted 18-35 white-male one, at which beauty-standard, scantily-clad women are thrown. You appear to be the center of attention, the star of this exciting, spontaneous little film—call it “It’s A B.Lightful Life”—but you’re really the subject of an experiment and surveillance. The action is ordered around the surveillance, with superficial weirdness like Don Cheadle with a lama in an elevator thrown at you to distract from the true work being done. If you had any doubt this was a hypermasculine fantasy, Arnold appears and assures you that it is. He was paid exactly $3 million to do it. He calls you his little princess—which sounds better than bitch—to make things clearer still. The concluding message comes via the song lyrics: that all that you want and need is Bud; that the only thing you can trust is Bud; that we must all live under One Bud Light Republic. Bud Light said it was trying to tap into the vein of The Hangover movies and to “reflect Millennial values like optimism and [the] desire to ‘go out there and experience the world.” The admakers are exploiting our desires for narrative meaning, exploration, spontaneity, excitement, and to know and be known—all to close us up good in a tight little Bud Light World. Bud Light has been doing this world-building kind of advertising for years now, becoming so confident in their artifice with it that here they go ahead and make it explicit by breaking the fourth wall. Ad created by BBDO.
Maserati — “Strike”
We open with a tsunami. Your interest is piqued. Is this something Interstellaresque? Don’t I recognize that voice? A shot of an isolated farmhouse backgrounded by a tornado produces a flicker of anxiety that this is another heartland car commercial or private disaster-relief grab. Sheer rock face. The geography is intimidating here, shading into catastrophic, but also waiting to be reclaimed, tamed, and settled. Also, we all want to avoid natural disasters. Then…lil’ Quenz Wallis, aka Hush Puppy to the apparent rescue! Watch the fire now! She’s talking about overcoming giants in the schoolyards. It is a hard knock life. “We were small, but fast, remember?” Oh yeah, I do! “We were like the wind, appearing out of nowhere.” Let’s win with magical realism! Bullied birds flock together! Lil’ Q tells us we have to continue to be clever. Black engineer. Ballerina. Steelworker. Fisherman. Autoworker. Hey, those are tough occupations! The bullies got so big they became skyscrapers. This is a civilizationist battle. She then announces…an offensive strike! Wow, we got those bullies! Violence as problem solver! What did we win besides our freedom? It’s a…Maserati? Wait, what?! Well, ain’t that a punch to the solar plexus. Hush Puppy overcomes racism, poverty, orphanhood, and geography to…tout a luxury Italian car?! Is that what you’re telling me?! Using the anti-bullying theme and claiming true grit just adds insult to injury, and we’re left with the acrid taste of an all-time, brazen piece of appropriation. Maserati is owned by Fiat. Ad created by Wieden & Kennedy.
Jeep — “Restless”
Something of a throwback as far as car ads go these days, it targets youth—and the idea of youth—without resorting to a baby-boomer nod, or notions of parenthood, home ownership, etc. Promotes ballistic culture by saying stillness kills. Yeah, wouldn’t want to sit with our own thoughts for a minute–the horror. I mean, that would cause the “walls to close in” on us, as the ad says. Promotes an “active lifestyle” composed of jumping into water muscularly; throwing a dim flare of unclear provenance; implied imminent sexual docking. Verbally invokes a genetic destiny of car ownership and tries to appropriate free will in the same breath. Looks to a sort of platonic “getting away,” which we might take as a somewhat refreshing departure from the more common themes today of implied apocalypse, and of society as something only to be rued or subdued. Ad created by Richards Group.
Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee — “Seinfeld Reunion”
Did this actually air? Mostly just stunned that we would have an ad that’s not only not for a product, but for something as small as a web series—and it’s a 90–second ad! Newman’s malicious rooting for the Seahawks refreshingly lands in a comedic place of not needing to be explained. This year I attended a Super Bowl party of nothing but people rooting for Peyton “The Chosen One” Manning “to have the best season ever”—whatever the hell that would entail—and was rendered an outsider through my inability to share in the room’s disappointment. With a Seinfeldian down-the-garden-path sarcasm, I kept insisting that he would come back, being the Chosen. My insistence rose in proportion to the group’s mounting despair as the Orange Ponies fell into ignominy. It really is a box score for posterity.
Budweiser — “A Hero’s Welcome”
“The spectacle is nothing more than an image of happy unification surrounded by desolation and fear at the center of misery.” –Guy Debord
Army Lieutenant Chuck Nadd has died and gone to heaven. For one day, though, he gets to visit his wife on Earth. Or is it Earth? He comes down an escalator from heaven and greets his wife. A white car is indoors: it symbolizes rebirth, safety, and newfound purity. A red SUV passes a red barn: the new (pastoral) lifeblood from the remains of a dying star is already pumping strong. We stop at a parade that’s for Lt. Chuck Nadd and for you, even though you’re not dead yet. All the paraders are people who have died inside. Wherever we are, Clydesdales are not yet liberated from King Bud’s servitude. It’s always a winter of spectacle in this Winter Park. A spectacle is about putting it all together. Do you feel put (back) together? The ad promises to restore a lost terrain, but overlays its own map—with its trap regions of love, capture, and consumption—in the process. The green of your drivers signifies renewal—specifically, your renewal of allegiance to King Bud and his suds. One dalmatian reassurance for good measure. Time is a flat beer can. Freedom…to stasis. #Save a Hero. Ad created by Anomaly.
Bob Dylan for Chrysler
Dylan at the 2015 Grammy Awards ceremony: “[Popular covers of Dylan] songs were like commercials. But I didn’t really mind that, because 50 years later my songs were used for commercials. So that was good too.”
“He love your sexy body, he loves your dirty mind / He loves when you hold him when you grab him from behind / Oh baby, you’re such a pretty thing / I can’t wait to introduce you to the other members of my gang // You don’t need no wax job, you’re smooth enough for me / If you need your oil changed, I’ll do it for you free / Oh baby, the pleasure would be all mine / If you let me drive your pickup truck / And park it where the sun don’t shine” –from “Dirty World,” by Bob Dylan’s supergroup The Traveling Wilburys
Let’s go ahead and restore a mythic, idyllic past, shall we? The ad opens with the all-time tautological and unintentionally comedic line “Is there anything more American than America?,” delivered by Bob Dylan no less, who has moved on from spilling Victoria’s Secret. That’s followed by a barrage of sheer Americana and a propagation of the myth of rugged American individualism, starting with: horses; cheerleaders; a beauty-standard lass sporting dark sunglasses, literally wrapped in the American flag, and beckoning to the sea. The flag provides warmth and safety amid the present dislocation. We know who we are, yet are essentially unknowable. Boys run in dust and probably into the diner to become the old-school, weathered man eating by himself. Die–young youth and beauty touted a la James Dean and Marilyn Monroe. The ballistic is enshrined via images of horses, amusement park rides, baseball, basketball, motorcycles, roads, and cars. More sunglasses and cool sheen. Rosie the Riveter is shamelessly used. Dylan tells us that “cars made America,” which is an oversimplified and irksome thought to settle on, yet too true. A shot of a mother–with–babe suggests new souls for the old America: a pronatalism we can all get behind. Cowboy falls off horse under oddly-placed light source; presumably gets back on horse. Dylan uses the word “conviction” in the sense of “We are convinced that we don’t need to change.” We then watch Car Salesman Dylan go into a music store, ostensibly in search of a fine guitar, but actually a lost self, and he stares at a Bob Dylan guitar book with a picture of his younger self on it, the effect a highly-attenuated Dylan projection and an invitation to gaze at pale images in dull relief reflected in an infinity mirror of suckcess. Then, the open road and all that. More fleeting youthful beauty. Dylan tries to naturalize this car/ballistic ecology by telling us we’re “creatures” that believe in “the zoom, and the roar, and the thrust.” Another shot of a mother and babe, this time from the ’60s (unchanging values). Dylan goes on, telling us to “let Asia assemble your phone.” Are human rights and labor abuses not our problem Bob? Shall we actually pull the flag up over our eyes? You wouldn’t be able to tell from the ad that Chrysler is now majority-owned by the Italian car company Fiat. Final shot is of him at a pool table, putting a ballistic bow on this present. Thus do we get a cultural icon who used to sing against chrome horses but now endorses them; who used to sing about wheels spinnin’ and times a-changin’, but now brakes hard to reinforce a car-culture status quo. He’s here to refresh and drink your American lemon socialism lemonade; he drinks it up. Dylan has remained gnomic enough over the years to be rather easily appropriated. This former restless rollin’ stone—a metaphor that goes all the way back to ancient notions of fortune—now arrested and spoked to a wheel of cheap, selective nationalism. One way the nationalism is selective is that it disavows that other supposed American hallmark: remaking oneself. Also, contrary to the thrust of the whole ad, Dylan has said that, while growing up, he felt like he’d been born in the wrong place. That’s the America we should be highlighting: the one that no matter how long you’re in it, its foreignness, strangeness, and unnaturalness persists. Ad created by Global Hue.
GoPro — “Red Bull Stratos”
Again I say: this aired? Whew! The social citizen in me rejoices in the near-complete disconnect between the event depicted and the product title card, a disconnect made all the more poignant by the novelty of the reality. Extra points for lots of shots of cameras that I’m pretty confident have nothing to do with the “GoPro.” Is it a brand? A model? A software? A space tourism agency? A sweet, sweet quality audio channel? A keeper? A key? A kingdom? A vector? A constant? It gets a final extra point for a line reading that sounds like a combination of a barely–awake–from–heavy–drinking slur and a Tom Hardyesque, cagey dialect. Better than Interstellar?
“It’s hard to believe people didn’t see these numbers coming. GoPro, which makes wearable cameras from $199 to $399, hasn’t advanced its core technologies meaningfully enough to compel consumers to upgrade from, say, a Hero 3 model to a 4K Ultra HD. But most of all, the action cam industry was built on a very shaky premise: that the general public does a lot of cool stuff worthy of capturing on video. “GoPro’s empire was built on one big fatal flaw”
Intuit QuickBooks Presents GoldieBlox — “Come On Bring The Toys”
Male genderization of worthwhile, creative toys under wholly unsupported rationales of profit maximization is a worthwhile issue to address. The ad, along with a surface glance at the company, depicts a standard response of deflection. The premise is fundamentally and purposefully unclear at its core: the typical viewer probably just notices girls grabbing female-gendered toys and running with them in some seeming celebration and just shrugs. Someone looking at it more closely might notice that they use the toys to make and launch a rocket ship: a problem possibly addressed, possibly creatively. The categorical failure of purpose would seem to extend to the company and its needless genderization of the products: these are not toys you’re going to buy junior without the neighborhood dads taking notice of the “you are a girl, this is a girl thing, you match” thrust. Contra a LEGO–type playset, these are clearly designed to follow a single design, emphasize clothes and female accessories, and, if my price is right, to be a premium designer set for the upper class. Ad created by RPA.
Kia — “The Truth”
We open outside of a nice hotel in Paris. A well-dressed, beauty-standard, top 1% white couple walks toward a valet at a valet podium, which is perched centrally on the sidewalk. The woman takes the blue valet ticket out of her designer purse to give to…Morpheus! Holy shit! “Let me tell why you’re here,” he strongly suggests. The woman flashes a look of concern to her man, to say “Why is this natty black valet in Paris talking to us in a direct way? Doesn’t he know we’re here because we’re entitled to be here? Why is he wearing sunglasses at night? I can’t see his eyes and that doesn’t help my judgment.” Morpheus knows he has to come at these people strong, otherwise they’ll just blow him off. The man is willing to listen to another line from Morpheus–the man’s life is god-awful boring after all. Morpheus follows with a strong truth claim about luxury. This unsettles the man, who does not want to confront any truths about how he’s been living a big lie–at least not right now in Paris. “We just want to go get our car,” he says out of escape impulse. Undeterred, Morpheus lays the red choice / blue choice decision on them. The man surprises himself by pretty quickly making the red choice, though he’s not surprised at all that he made a unilateral, no-discussion decision for both him and his partner. A Kia pulls up and we hear the instant-classic Matrix out–of–joint sound effect. The car is white and thus pure and can be trusted. “This is unreal,” the man says. “No, it’s very real,” Morpheus corrects, and we’re now clearly driving through nothing less than a fundamental remaking of truth and reality. If you didn’t already know that this is a preview for the upcoming feature film Matrix 4: Opera of Creative Luxury Destruction, where Morpheus is captured and brainwashed by the machines, now you do, as he breaks into Nessun dorma (“None shall sleep”) from Puccini’s Turandot. It’s nothing but smooth, rabbit-hole-free sailing from here for our protagonists, but none shall sleep besides them, as they leave a trail of disturbance and destruction in their wake. The strength of nostalgia for the ’90s on display here tells us just how terrible the current times are, and the parodic tone just how much we’ve succumbed to the artificiality we were supposed to be guarding against. The blue pill never sounded so good. Ad created by David&Goliath.