Just like the tens of millions of other American households, we had friends over last night to watch the game. And like millions of other households whose teams were not in the contest, we were watching as much for the commercials as for the actual game. Dinner? check. Snacks? check. Done and in front of the television by game time? check. The event over the years has almost become as much about watching the creativity of Madison Avenue ad firms as about running backs and linebackers and we were anticipating the latest from Doritos, Budweiser and GoDaddy. But by the end of the first half, I was taken aback by the commercials because the tone of the ads wasn’t remotely close to the care-free beer, babes and goofiness of ads from previous years. What gives?
It was a discordance from previous years that was noticed by others in the household, although I don’t know that they’d take a shot at figuring out why. For the record, I believe that television commercials – and shows – are a great indicator of the national consciousness although I do wonder whether there’s a chicken/egg question here; do the shows and commercials initially set the tone and direct the consciousness or are they merely channeling what is permeating the nation’s consciousness? I’m certain that some shows do try to direct but I don’t know whether they’re the small minority and the rest just channel and they’re jumping on the bandwagon. The science fiction movies of the 1950s certainly played out our national fear about the effects of radiation and nuclear testing (Them, for example). The movies of the early 1970s to the 1980s usually showed a distaste and opposition to the military as the country worked through the after-effects of the draining Vietnamese War. Many television shows of the 1980s and onwards worked through dual issues of divorce and feminism by often – as in most of the time – portraying fathers as buffoons and well-intentioned idiots. A bit broad perhaps, but the evidence is there.
But the commercials’ tone was vastly different last night. I actually made notes as to topics and there were three separate commercials that played upon the important role that fathers play in the lives of their children. More men do the laundry and cook than before, but the role is more amorphous than the typical mother’s role. The most notable was the car commercial in which a boy – a la the Oscar-nominated Boyhood – is shown at points in his life without his father, who is apparently a well-known race car driver. Mom is ever-present but it’s obvious that by the time that he’s a teen, he’s withdrawn from her and the relationship is problematic. But Dad re-enters the picture at the end as he picks up the teen and somehow, magically, the two reconnect in a front-seat hug. Would that it were that easy, but the point is obvious that when your attention is not upon the family but upon yourself, there’s a steep price to be paid. These aren’t about mothers who are presumed to be present and engaged, but about fathers – us – with the message that we matter. Even the Budweiser lost dog commercial is clearly carrying a message that it’s necessary to look after the little ones, who are likely to suffer if we aren’t present and in the game. The most glaring example was the suicide-inducing Nationwide commercial about a kid who will never enjoy a prom or other activities because he died in a childhood accident. It was a message so out of keeping with past Super Bowl ads that both and my eldest son and I immediately and vociferously remarked on it. Whoa! Did you see that?! Holy shit! Way to kill the buzz, Nationwide!
The other message of note pertained to overcoming obstacles. There were two, from different corporations, that each featured real-life people overcoming the loss of legs and obviously on the national consciousness for all of the veterans who have lost limbs in the past fourteen years. These people weren’t veterans – one was a female athlete and the other a small boy – but each was capable of overcoming such an obvious loss and taking on an active and vibrant life. Another ad dealt with helping teenage girls overcome the self-image issues that plague them with the onset of puberty. Each child or person was asked to run like a girl, throw a ball or punch like a girl and the result was predictably sexist. These shots are then compared with the results when young girls are themselves asked and the results are not sexist in the least as the girls run, punch and throw an imaginary ball without any hint of obvious effeminacy. The point of these ads is that what matters is what you think and not others so go ahead and don’t be discouraged.
The most notable difference however was in the GoDaddy commercial. Previous years all played out around beautiful, sexy women and displayed a glitz and raciness that left people talking afterwards for days. But the sole GoDaddy ad quietly showed a man working patiently at his desk with the surrounding windows portraying nighttime. No wild music, no women and just the narrator stating that for all of the hard work that you, the small business owner, is putting in to get ahead, we’ll lift a dip-filled chip in salute to you. The advertisers are obviously aware that in the present state of zombified-economy America, there are more businesses closing than opening and with much of their own business dependent upon domain registration and website management, it’s crucial that their clients buckle down and grind it out.
Whether Madison Avenue is the chicken that’s just passing along the gist of the national consciousness or it’s the egg that’s cluing in a mass audience that all really isn’t well, the message is there and clear. Buckle down and get ready for the grind. It’s going to be difficult with many obstacles, but it’s certainly not unconquerable. And above all, look to your family – especially you men – and understand that despite what’s been televised for the past quarter-century or so, you have an important role in raising your children and preparing them for the world. The gravity found in these commercials on what is typically such a light-hearted broadcast indicates that the consciousness is aware that exceedingly difficult times are ahead and is now formulating it for the mass consumption to the widest audience possible. Get ready and gather the kids in. Something wicked this way comes.