Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Super-Bad Super Bowl Ads

Sunday night’s television coverage of the Super Bowl provided the annual event its largest viewing audience in history. Forgive the New York analogy, but the Super Bowl is the Times Square of television, isn’t it? It’s the one place where you can attract the attention of the most people at one time. Replace the traffic and subways with the game, and replace the billboards and neon with commercials, and you’ve got the intersection of Broadway and 42nd Street right in your living room.

Sometimes, the two teams who end up playing in the Super Bowl don’t draw the national audience the NFL might prefer. Undaunted, the NFL began pitching the game’s commercial time to advertisers as, well, the Times Square of television. Madison Avenue has risen to the challenge, tucking their elite talent between snippets of the game in an arrangement that has become famous in its own right.

Reviled throughout the year, commercials suddenly become their own desired genre. The game sometimes risks becoming a sideshow as thirty-second vignettes manage to keep viewers entertained even after we know which team will win. Indeed, those of us who gathered to watch the big game Sunday were treated to the NFL’s idea of a jolly good time, wrapped up in a slick package of marketing with some football thrown in for good measure.

Get Your Game On

I am not a football fan, so only rarely will the game trump the commercials in entertainment value for me. In our little group Sunday, I was quite content that we watched repeats of all the commercials, but hardly any game replays. It’s the one thing you know everybody in the party will watch – the advertisements. And what do you think generated the most conversation: the ads, or the game?

This year, the controversy over Tim Tebow’s ad had far more punch before the game than the actual commercial aired after the kickoff. Kudos went to the Denny’s Grand Slam chickens for providing a fair amount of hilarity. But the thing I noticed most about the commercials in general centered on their blatant disrespect for wholesome gender roles and senior citizens, and goofy, overt sexuality. I don’t know about you, but I was embarrassed to watch some of them in mixed company.

Yesterday, the day after, a considerable amount of discussion took place in the blogosphere regarding the vilification and/or objectification of women in many of the commercials. However, these discussions seemed to occur mostly among feminists who were furious at the gratuitous overgeneralizations portrayed in the ads. But just because feminists were the largest audience offended doesn’t mean they don’t have a point. Actually, I think more people should have been offended.

We Know What They Weren't Thinking

Obviously, it’s not just the commercials at fault, but the mindset to which the creators of these commercials are attempting to appeal. It’s the lowest common denominator at work again, and while few ad agencies managed to maintain any dignity Sunday night, it’s questionable whether any were even trying to begin with.

For some men, the Dodge “Man's Last Stand” commercial probably resonated more strongly than its feminist detractors would like to hear. I can’t deny I know of several guys who are henpecked this way by their significant others. However, the balance of authority and submission in a healthy relationship doesn’t have to get blown out of proportion if the couple respect each other in the first place, so is Dodge saying they make cars for wimps?

Dove’s sensuous mans’ bath might have been a good introduction for their products if it didn’t actually slam their target audience at the same time. Of course, that’s assuming they were marketing their masculine soap products to men; maybe they were trying to get women to buy these items and subversively stock the shower stall with them. Either way, Dove missed the mark with both women and men in our group.

And what was up with CareerBuilder’s idea for having people wander around in their underwear? Does winning customers for a job site now mean grossing them out with your ad? Not only was it immature and in bad taste, but how do middle-aged exhibitionists in briefs and bras make your product compelling? If CareerBuilder’s employees watched this commercial on their office computers, couldn't they be fired for sexual harrassment? Our group was so disgusted watching it that although we’ll remember “CareerBuilder”, it won’t be for the purpose of respecting their resume service.

Correct me if I’m wrong, Madison Avenue, but to me, most of the drivel passing for commercials seemed to have been contrived by poorly-educated interns raised on little more than MTV and pop-tarts. Some executives older than they try to look and fighting to maintain relevance among the flood of marginal marketing school grads apparently gave obscene budgets to their vapid proteges to regurgitate the prepubescent drivel they consider self-expression. How accurate is my guess?

If women stripping in front of Danica Patrick is being creative, then I guess beer jokes about little women fit right in. Punching an old guy in the groin when you spy a VW is hilarious, isn’t it? Tackling Betty White and Abe Vigoda seems relatively tame after Tim Tebow does it to his own mother in a tired football theme betraying a woeful lack of creativity.

Does a Hyundai SUV symbolize financial prudence by its driver pulling up outside a Las Vegas casino? What do animated stuffed animals and a sock puppet dancing provocatively have to do with a kid riding safely in the back seat, anyway? Is it artistic expression for a beautiful woman to send a suggestive photo of herself via her phone, or is it just porn when teenagers do it?

Accepting Bad Behavior Isn't Acceptable

Now, I don’t look to commercials for lessons in grace and good manners. But neither do I expect them to be so insulting – to my intelligence, as well as my morals. Where is the respect for elders? Where is the virtue of Godly womanhood and manhood – or even simple civility? Don’t we have an epidemic of “sexting” among teenagers today? If a husband doesn’t respect his wife, should he be rewarded with a V8-powered Chrysler product?

A lot of people will simply wave their hand and say it’s all just in fun. You can’t stifle creativity, especially just because you don’t like how it’s expressed. These companies paid a lot of money to make and air these commercials, so they must know what they’re doing. After all, they’ve gotta keep pushing the envelope to keep people watching.

After Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake pushed the envelope way too far during their Super Bowl half-time romp several years ago, the NFL begrudgingly admitted their flagship presentation should still be family entertainment. But we all know the NFL couldn’t care less about family entertainment. They want beer-guzzling blue-mouthed skirt-chasers watching their games, leering at gratuitous shots of gyrating cheerleaders. They want guys who may or may not want to drink responsibly, drive recklessly on a closed course, or talk to their doctor before using any medication. They want an audience who thinks and acts simplistically, with self-gratification as the end goal. Why? Because that’s the kind of audience the NFL can easily deliver to advertisers, and that’s the kind of audience advertisers know they can manipulate.

If Virtue is so Valuable, Why Can't It Sell?

It may be that morals and ethics just don’t sell. Google made an attempt with their commercial chronicling the dating, marriage, and maternity of a search engine customer, although I wonder if they threw in the Paris church search more as another product demo than an endorsement of getting married before starting a family. And the Tebow ad, heralded by his fans as a must-see, fell flatter than Tim’s mom after her son’s sack of her, which was weird on so many levels. What were they trying to say?

I’m not calling for a return to the old cigarette commercials with painted canvas backdrops, or for the censorship police to cull everything that isn’t politically correct. Audi may just have had the most clever ad with the green police arresting a cop for using a Styrofoam cup – probably one of Al Gore’s fondest dreams for our country.

It’s just that after seeing such a dismal parade of sexist, ageist, immoral, and downright explicit commercials, I felt like one of those shrill Denny’s chickens, screeching in horror at today’s Grand Slam promotion.

Of course, I liked the astronaut chicken the best – its screeching was absorbed in the wonderful, silent void of space.


  1. Tim, great posts. But - for Heaven's sake - this is a blog ! Who's got time to read 14 pages per post ??? Keep it up.

  2. Good analysis, T-Lite. I say, if we've got time to watch 3 1/2 hours of the Super-Duper Bowl, then surely we have time to read one of your blog posts. It's good and thought provoking to the very last word.


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