The Commercials Are the Super Bowl
This article originally appeared on TomDispatch.
Editor's Note: Check out an interview with Robert Lipsyte, conducted by Timothy MacBain, here.
In 1987, an evangelical Christian missionary in the Philippines, Pam Tebow, sick and near term, ignored doctors' advice to abort her fifth child. How could they know he would grow up to win a Heisman Trophy and lead the University of Florida to two national titles?
Twenty-three years later, before he even turned pro, Tim Tebow made himself the player to beat in Sunday's Super Bowl XLIV by starring in a thirty-second commercial for Focus on the Family, a Christian group that opposes abortion and same-sex marriage. That the ad would run represented a reversal of CBS's long-time policy against advocacy ads. At this late date, it is still not certain if Tim's creation myth will be included in the commercial, or even if the ad will be aired at all.
Whatever happens, the controversy put the game's spotlight back where it belongs--on the advertising.
Super Bowl Sunday is America's holiest day, our all-inclusive campfire, and with 100 million viewers, almost half of them women, about as close as we get, without a presidential election, to taking the national pulse. The ads tell us who we are and where we are going. They are also Madison Avenue's best chance--at a reported $3 million or more a minute--to create a buzz. In fact, in a world in which TiVo-ing is spreading like wildfire, they may be Madison Avenue's last chance to actually get watched on TV.
These days, when it comes to Super Bowl ads, the buzz never dies as YouTube, best/worst commercial contests, chat rooms and vigorous follow-up ad campaigns carom around the precincts of popular culture. Sacred, profane, gross, on-the-mark or clueless, the ads are cultural signifiers. If Tebow gets to pitch on Sunday, his ad will share the air with the basic football consumer groups: cars, tech, beer, soda and chips. And, of course, he'll be right there along with the stuff everyone is waiting to see--like those three nerds leering at a naked Danica Patrick, the auto racer, for a website company, or that office jerk farting for an employment service.
I am a Super Bowl ad fan. I'd rather go to the bathroom during a third-down play than miss a commercial.
You'll want to know my all-time favorites.
"You Should Be So Lucky"
For sheer prescience when it came to American foreign policy, nothing has beaten "Kenyan Runner," a Super Bowl commercial that ran just before Team W led us to eight losing seasons in Afghanistan, Iraq and at home.
Imagine a black African runner in a singlet, loping barefoot across an arid plain. White men in a Humvee are hunting him down as if he were wild game. They drug him and, after he collapses, jam running shoes on his feet. When he wakes up, he lurches around screaming, trying to kick off the shoes.
This was 1999, two years before the 9/11 attacks and the invasions that followed. The sponsor was Just For Feet, a retailer with 140 shoe and sportswear super stores that blamed its advertising agency for the spot -- before it collapsed in an accounting fraud and disappeared.
Colonialism anyone? Racism? Forcing our values on developing countries? Mission accomplished.
Then there was prescience on the domestic front in another Super Bowl ad, "Money Out the Whazoo": imagine a middle-aged man wheeled into an emergency room. Doctors and nurses turn him over and someone says, "He has money coming out the wazoo." A hospital administrator officiously asks his distraught wife if they have insurance. A doctor calls out, "Money out the wazoo!" The administrator says, "Take him to a private room."
The tag line was: "You should be so lucky." This was 2000. The sponsor was E*Trade, the online stock gambling outfit. How did they know that the economy was going to tank just when the healthcare system would go up for grabs?
If you'd been paying attention to the ads instead of the game, you, too, could have sold America short.
My Super Bowl favorites, you might have guessed by now, are not consensus picks. Most fans seem to prefer the 1979 Coke commercial in which Mean Joe Greene, the Pittsburgh Steelers Hall of Fame defensive tackle, limps off the field past a young boy who offers him his Coke. Greene sucks it down and, as the kid turns away, says, "Hey, kid, catch," throwing him his jersey. While this ad is usually number one or two in best Super Bowls lists, it actually first aired several months before the game.
Oh, what a better time that was, when we truly loved our sports heroes and felt for them when they were beaten. The remake of that ad, in 2009, showed how much we've lost in thirty years. As Troy Polamalu, the Pittsburgh strong safety, limps off the field, a kid offers him his Coca-Cola Zero. Before he can take it, two Coke brand managers grab it and run off. Polamalu tackles them, grabs the bottle, drains it, then rips off one of the manager's shirts and tosses it to the kid.
That snarky (post-irony?) parody of the iconic Mean Joe Greene commercial may be obvious enough, but that's no reason not to pile on the subtexts: Labor and management in the National Football League are now gearing up for serious confrontations. The Supreme Court is hearing one of them--a challenge to the league's antitrust exemption which will have an impact on, among many other things, the sale of jerseys. No wonder Troy ripped the shirt off management's back.