I read recently that, in the past ten years, the Super Bowl's
various sponsors have paid, in total, about $1.85 billion for
airtime during the big game. We don't know how much the companies
have spent producing the commercials themselves, but we can assume
that it's a lot, and indeed, the ads these days sport so many
celebrity cameos and high-end special effects that one must
conclude that, in most cases, one of the foremost intentions of the
advertiser is to convey that a ton of cash has been dropped.
These companies must love it, I think, when we talk about how
expensive it is to run a 30-second spot during the Super Bowl. The
amount of money involved surely is one of the factors that has
convinced us that, on Super Bowl Sunday, the TV commercials are a
cultural event of significance comparable to that of the game
itself - or maybe of greater significance, because a football game
is, after all, just a meaningless clash between large muscular
people, whereas the advertisements reflect the economic and
cultural climate in which we live and therefore are much like art:
they speak to us and of us.
They are, additionally, tributes to human creativity and, like
all creative endeavors, offer us different ways of looking at the
world: with a burst of humor, a touch of emotion, a shimmer of
style. We know these ads are creative, again, mostly because of the
money involved. With millions on the line, we can be certain that
only the best and most imaginative filmmakers, copywriters, and art
directors will get a shot here.
It's worth noting that nearly all of the products hawked during
the Super Bowl are, from some perspective, "terrible" products:
flavorless international macrobrews; processed, nutritionally void
foods; sugary, caloric sodas; American cars. There's probably a
pretty good shot that, when we die, one of the items I just listed
will be at least partly to blame.
There is, I suppose, the widespread notion that, regardless of
what we think of the products on display (which, after all, we're
too smart to buy purely because the TV told us to), we can just
appreciate the artistry that goes into big-budget advertising
nowadays. On the other hand, it's hard to believe that, from a
sales perspective, PepsiCo doesn't know what it's doing. Why would
it spend all that dough if it couldn't "really" manipulate us?
Well, it wouldn't. Can art not serve ignoble purposes? Am I
denying that advertisers are truly the creative geniuses of our
time? In what way, exactly, does commercialism negate art?
Maybe it doesn't so much negate it as preempt it. Because their
main objective is to get us to do something (i.e., to buy something
we don't need), TV ads can speak only to our illogical selves, with
broad jokes, corny sentiments, and childish rapture over shiny
things. The best advertisers are the ones who can take simple
notions - e.g., that scantily clad women are exciting or that
driving fast is fun - and twist them with such cleverness and
novelty that we don't realize that the basic terms in which they're
communicating are degrading.
Television commercials are, in this way, really the opposite of
art, whose goal is to reach a deeper, better part of us - and not
to prey upon our anxieties or superficialities but to understand us
and heal us.
This column is, I guess, the culmination of 13 or so years of
hearing people say that they "mostly watch the Super Bowl for the
commercials" and feeling that this, though a popular attitude, was
in some way wrong - that we should enjoy ad-supported content,
sure, but that to enjoy the experience of having enormous
corporations attempt to sell us useless products so much as to
become willing to sit through a four-hour TV program in which we'd
otherwise have no interest must be some kind of sign of spiritual
crisis. Indeed, the simple fact of so many people who don't
actually care about football watching the Super Bowl, whatever
their reason, seems a victory of hype over the individual.
This "I mostly watch for the commercials" line is, I think,
usually said by people who believe that "football is stupid" - and
maybe it is, but a lot more thought and even imagination are
required to be entertained by a football game than to be shallowly
delighted by a 30-second ad. And are the ads really that
delightful, anyway? It seems to me that even the "funniest" of the
commercials are typified by the false anarchy of constrained,
purpose-driven absurdity, and that the most beautiful of them are
coated in a sort of grossly covetous sheen, a way of seeing things
that consists mostly of wanting them.
I'm rooting for the 49ers, by the way.