For many of us the Super Bowl is more pop cultural event than sporting competition. Throughout the years it's the peripheral activities -- the halftime show, the advertisements -- that have become the most talked about aspects of America's most watched championship. We gather around living rooms and sport bars not to see who will hoist the trophy, but to be a part of this now worldwide can't miss event.
And it is because of the impressive size and reach of this annual Sunday celebration that a deeper look into its components should be an exercise considered not only worthy but necessary.
The halftime show gets a pass. For as much as I'm twitching at the chance to critique the banality of pop music, Katy Perry's halftime show was well done and pretty darn fun. I mean it's the halftime show at the Super Bowl, after all, so we weren't going to get a Miles Davis introspection.
No, it's the much anticipated Super Bowl commercials that have drawn the most attention and commentary, and rightfully so. I know that it may seem senseless to complain about ads trying to sell us stuff when selling us stuff is their one and only raison d'être, but there was something different going on this year.
Throughout the evening, ad after ad delivered messages of positivity and deep emotional connection, touching on subjects as serious as gender discrimination, disability, and death. Personal and social issues were brought up in touching and surprisingly deep ways, never going over the top, hitting all the right chords and delivering what I can only describe as great work, dare I say great art.
Sure there were still the usual laughs and gratuitous eye-candy, but one could not help but notice this new and thought-provoking theme. Nissan made fathers across the land cry with their touching take on father-son relationships. Nationwide insurance used the death of a small child to shock us into thinking about insurance. Toyota beautifully highlighted the accomplishments of disabled woman while plugging their Camry. McDonald's began giving away free meals if you just show some lovin', either by dancing with a stranger or telling a family member that you love them. And Dodge used life affirming quotes and inspiration delivered by 100 year olds' to celebrate its anniversary.
So what's the problem? Aren't I happy that they're using a father's love to sell me stuff instead of fake titties? Sure I guess it's better to have images of human relationships flashing on the screens and eyes of our culture. But as I sat quietly, fully engrossed, and as my strings and buttons were pulled and pushed, the warn feeling and tear in my eye was immediately followed by a feeling of something insidious.
As much I may like this thoughtful aesthetic better than the cheap and fluffy, I began to feel like I was getting the moves put on me by some smooth but secretly sleazy operator. The ads continued to deliver positive social messages, making me think and feel in positive ways foreign to mainstream commercial advertisements, bringing up issues and themes beneficial to our culture -- yet still I couldn't help but feel like this guy is trying to get in my pants by pretending he reads Joyce and his parents just died.
And so, is this actually a bad thing? Who cares if they are trying to sell you something as long as the message is positive?
Let's take a moment to think about why the industry decided to go in this positive and thoughtful direction. And there, I'm done. Marketing grads, I'm sorry to say this aloud but it was not because the powers that be suddenly realized that they should use their influence for good. It's because the industry realized -- and by realize I mean spent millions of dollars studying how the public is reacting to their constant stream of marketing tactics -- that as a culture we are tired of the same old fluffy tricks. We pay for HBO. We recycle. We need more.
The devil's advocate in my head says that business needs to make money, that's how the world works, therefore so what if I'm peddling a product as long as the positive message you long for is being delivered?
Again, good question. It makes sense. Be a realist. Nothing is for free. And as this wake up and smell the coffee of the real world logic begins to seep in and I see that perhaps this isn't such a bad thing...I'm snapped back and say wait a second. Wait just one second.
For decades you bombard us with imagery of impossible standards of beauty, superficiality, and over-consumption, trying to convince us that we need to be thinner, richer, sexier; helping push our culture towards unprecedented levels of materialism and addiction and mental disorder. And now that we, as a people, have progressed and become educated enough that such ploys no longer have the same hold on us, you now move onto our more deeper levels, looking to commercialize our most human parts, looking for somewhere new to sink in and grab a hold?
And you expect us not to wonder about your motives? To thank you for scrambling for new ways to get inside our heads?
During the Superbowl, Always ran this ad showing the gender stereotypes around doing stuff "like a girl". It juxtaposed what adults think of when they're asked to throw or run like a girl (silly, girly, and basically not that good) against the way actual little girls act when asked the same (with passion and intensity and awesomeness). The contrast shown is simple yet extremely effective, making us realize how damaging and pervasive cultural stereotypes are. This is one is tough, because it's a great freaking ad.
One could argue that Always (a woman's personal hygiene brand) has more right to use women to sell their product than does a Japanese car-maker trying to sell a four-door sedan, but the thought that keeps me from simply enjoying this great ad and great message is that I know that you don't really care.
If the cultural ethos today was superficial bubble-gum materialism you wouldn't even think of women's issues and would instead be showing us bimbo-style girls asking "like, oh my god, does this tampon make my vagina look fat??"
Your caring is conditional.
You would drop this act the minute the sales numbers tell you it's best to do so.
And so, despite it being relatively better than a topless race driver trying to sell me a website, I'm still not buying it.
This piece originally appeared on HeadSpace
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