SUPER BOWL COMMERCIALS - A FEMINIST'S CRITIQUE
By Grace Hirt
February 4, 2013
Let me preface these remarks with a full disclaimer: I am a commercial enthusiast. I think they say more about our culture, more directly and succinctly, than basically any other form of media.
In general, I do tend to think they’re evil, but it’s such a fascinating form of evil! And I don’t know why, but I still hold out hope that one day, I will see some miraculous ad that will not make me want to yawn, cry, or punch every white man in the face and then leave the planet entirely.
Mostly, though, I feel cynically obligated to calculate the offensiveness factor of every commercial I see, while hopefully staying detached enough not to register total despair. Because really, if you’re not watching TV ironically at this point, I don’t know who you are. David Foster Wallace, anyone?
Pretty much universally, last night’s Super Bowl commercials served to reinforce my worst fears about humans. Sure, Amy Poehler was great, but there was no need for the tired ditzy-tech-illiterate-lady trope. And yes, the Budweiser Clydesdale ad may have gotten me a little misty. But mostly, last night’s ad spots were filled by the same sexy woman-objects, stupid white guys, and casual racism that have been making it hard to feel good about our culture since I became a sentient being. Here are a few standouts.
“Journey” and “Lucky Chair”: A little cultural objectification from your pals at Bud Light
I’m not going to add my voice to the chorus condemning the definitely problematic VW "Get Happy" commercial (As Remy put it, “Jezebel already did that.”). But in the racism vein (what a great vein!), I was immediately horrified when I saw this. And then there was this one, which made my head explode. Am I the only one?
Okay, I get it: the Super Bowl was in New Orleans, which has a strong association with Voodoo and magic. But there’s a big difference between nodding to that cultural history and simplistically objectifying it to sell beer. Also, the entire premise of the commercials is dudes using black (key word) magic TO MAKE THEIR TEAM WIN THE GAME. Clearly the kind of sacred use to which Voodoo rituals are dedicated.
Let’s all put our imagination hats on and contemplate a scenario in which the Super Bowl were held in Rome. Bud Light airs a commercial where a guy somehow makes it past the Vatican gatekeepers, gets to see the pope, and has him, I don’t know, pray the rosary over Ray Lewis’ cleats.
People would be offended, right? I’m not saying Stevie Wonder is like the pope – although I would be a much bigger fan of the pope if he were – but the principle is the same. The Bud Light ad trivializes something sacred to many people in order to try and sell beer.
But not only does Bud Light’s simplistic cultural appropriation obscure the true spiritual nature of a complex religion, it makes use of that classic “magical negro” trope. Yes, Stevie Wonder is pretty magical, but THAT’S NOT THE KIND OF MAGIC I’M TALKING ABOUT. And no beer commercial would be complete without the random insertion of a sexy woman, cue Zoe Saldana. Objectification all around!
What’s that you say? How can the commercials be racist if Stevie Wonder and Zoe Saldana agreed to do them? Well, Volkswagen asked 100 Jamaicans if their commercial was racist, and we know how that one turned out.
2 Broke Girls and the timeless appeal of sexy ladies and frosting
This seemed like a perfect example of everything I think is wrong with American advertising. The promo was directed by David LaChapelle, whose signature, according to his website’s biography, is his “hyper-realist” style “with profound social messages.” Right.
It’s not that I was expecting anything profound from CBS. “2 Broke Girls” has been criticized for being racist, with most of the vitriol focused on the boss, a diminutive, work-obsessed Asian immigrant named Han. The show also has a dirty mouth, apparently, though I wouldn’t know. As if I watch network television.
The point is, no one was asking for anything revolutionary from CBS, but what we get in the promo is a straight-up stripper display of two female bodies, unmediated by any sense of reason or story. There are shiny outfits, confetti, copious hair-flipping, frosting-licking, and Jennifer Coolidge with a cherry in her mouth.
It’s all really pretty, and really pointless. Right before the end, there’s a record-scratch moment where Kat Dennings asks, “Wait, why are we doing this again?” Beth Behrs responds: “It’s for the Super Bowl.” Kat: “Oh, right.” Then right back to Def Leppard and hip-gyrations.
Wait, what? First of all, this is shameless sexploitation that doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the show itself. For example, I’m totally cool with Fergie hanging out in a giant bowl of whipped cream, because that song is about how tasty she is. I’ve never watched “2 Broke Girls,” but I’m willing to bet the focus is not explicitly the girls’ sexy stripper moves.
And second, if that little exchange toward the end is supposed to make that point, it does a terrible job. It makes the girls look vapid, not like they’re interrogating the culture that has put them in this position. The promo ultimately has no point besides giving the show a cool “look.” Definitely no profound social message to be had.
Dodge, Jeep, and AMERICA
The Dodge Farmer commercial was, in all sincerity, my favorite – it was the only commercial all night that actually silenced the room, partly because no one could figure out until the end just what it was a commercial for (I called it like halfway through, just saying). It was simple, the images were beautiful, and Paul Harvey’s voice is fantastic. I even liked the sentiment of his words: farmers are some of the hardest-working people in our society, and we need more of them.
But then the ad ended and I realized what had just happened: I had been emotionally manipulated into embracing not only Christianity (“So God made a farmer” is Harvey’s refrain), but also the nuclear family, rugged masculinity, and patriarchy as central to American identity. Not to mention monocropping.
The strategy of writing one’s brand into the fabric of culture by emphasizing the culture and not the brand is not new, especially in the realm of trucks. It makes you, the large corporation, seem like you have a soul (you don’t). At the end of the day, though, you are advertising a product which is contributing to the death of the planet on which the people in your commercial make their living. You do not have dibs on the figure of the American farmer. Also you stole your commercial from a Youtube video. CHEAP.
Speaking of cheap, there was also that Jeep ad, which similarly takes advantage of some very serious emotions to pitch you their product through indirect imaging rather than actually pitching you their product. Through some mistake of biology, I literally cannot watch footage of troops reuniting with their families without crying a little bit, and this was no exception. But the patriotic, church-based gender-norming was a little heavy-handed even for me, and it left me with a bad taste in my mouth.
All in all, the same old disappointing crap that has constituted advertising’s lifeblood basically forever. To make up for it, I’ll leave you with this, which requires no comment.
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