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February 8, 2008 - Rick Chatenever
Not being an actual holiday doesn’t stop the Super Bowl from being a national observance of mammoth proportions. With a TV audience close to 100 million, it’s the one day each year when, as advertising guru Donny Deutsch has observed, everyone’s on the same channel.
People who have little knowledge, much less interest, in whatever teams might actually be playing still celebrate the game. As holidays go, it’s somewhere between the Fourth of July and Thanksgiving, probably a more accurate gauge than either of them of them of what we — we guys, at least — hold dear.
Which is to say, whatever we might be persuaded to buy. More than a decade ago, I thought I was going out on the limb by observing this phenomenon and devoting a whole column to Super Bowl commercials. Now I’ve been totally eclipsed.
Forget a column. Now the ads are covered on front pages Monday mornings, in more detail than the game itself. At more than $2.5 million a pop, Super Bowl ads are a huge business story. As entertainment, they often surpass actual movies —certainly from a writing standpoint.
But what they really are is modern mythology — fabulous epics unfolding in 30 or 60 seconds. Here’s a FedEx spot featuring gigantic passenger pigeons looking like something Odysseus might have encountered in his travels.
On Super Bowl Sunday, Clydesdale horses have souls to go with their soulful faces. Here’s one like “Rocky,” on four furry hooves, complete with a Dalmatian to play the Burgess Meredith role.
In the world of Super Bowl ads, forests are populated by adorable creatures, right out of a Disney casting call, whose lives depend on having Bridgestone tires on your car.
The products come in all sizes, shapes and price ranges, from Doritos to Audis. On this afternoon, movies and movie stars are products, too.
Angelina Jolie’s face is as recognizable as logos for Toyota or Bud Light. Sometimes the stars are plugging their latest movie; other times they’re doing parodies of themselves — Will Ferrell is master of that domain — producing a hall-of-mirrors effect.
It’s all part of the trivial pursuits game our celebrity-driven culture mistakes for actual culture.
Animals are often smarter than people — guys at least — in Super Bowl ads. The guys sometimes come with bionic parts, but that doesn’t seem to increase their IQs.
Those computer-generated metallic warrior-gladiators were stronger presences — they certainly had more personality — than the play-by-play announcers Sunday. The ’bots were there on the edge of the TV screen for both the game and the ads, until you lost track of which was which.
Even though a lot of commercials were for cars and trucks, cars.com offered a novel buyer protection plan. It showed a customer bringing a witch doctor to the showroom to shrink the salesman’s head if he didn’t get the deal he wanted.
Shrinking heads was a strangely apt symbol for the afternoon. I used to think Super Bowl Sunday was a celebration of American guys. Turns out, it’s a celebration of American guys acting dumb.
A Victoria’s Secret spot near the end of the game featured a slinky model in lingerie, purring that she was impatient for the game to end so the real game could begin.
Now, that was a way of getting our attention … not to mention, the attention of the women, who now make up 40 percent of the TV audience.
But in fact, the Victoria’s Secret model was just running one play in the playbook. And the game wasn’t the one on the field.
Although his name isn’t nearly as well known as his uncle Sigmund Freud’s, a man named Edward Bernays deserves the credit for writing that playbook, at least a rough draft, almost a century ago.
Bernays was a pioneer in the new field of public relations in the early part of the 20th century. He found all sorts of ingenious ways of putting Uncle Sigmund’s theories — that people are ruled by their emotions, not their minds — into action, using the infant science of psychology to get people to buy whatever his clients hired him to sell.
Super Bowl Sunday may be his greatest legacy.
Of course we don’t understand what all those ads are saying. That’s by design. Just like we don’t exactly understand how we find ourselves sitting across the desk from the Chevy Truck salesman Monday morning.
That’s the real game. We’re the players. And the prize.
Bring your own witch doctor.
Contact Rick Chatenever at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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