This weekend feels like a dark milestone, or perhaps a crossover, of American politics and sport. It is hard to have watched the brawling, bruising, disheartening rounds of Democratic and Republican debates followed in quick succession with the sleepy Super Bowl 50 and not see the likeness. Two national institutions appear to be on parallel paths of imploding.
SB50 advertising this year felt akin to this year’s political debates, where we watch the purported best and brightest transparently "position" themselves in a horse race that seems dissociated from civic duty. Puppymonkeybaby and a town of Ryan Reynolds, celebs like Anthony Hopkins making fun of their own mercenary shilling, an NFL that shamefully turned a blind eye to spousal abuse now advertising itself as a marital aphrodisiac -- all felt like it was more about process than purpose. Like the game, everyone was playing defense.
Super Bowl advertising -- the spectacle of watching the game for the ads, the self-consciousness of the annual ritual -- has finally fallen in upon itself. The sum total is boredom, predictability, everyone -- creators and audience -- just going through the motions now.
The advertising this year looked as if it was struggling desperately to be clever…and missing the mark with an eerie consistency. A Skittles Steven Tyler, like the Reynolds-ville, underscored the tendency to use visual tricks to get noticed at the expense of any real wit. None of the pop culture references, most notably Schumer and Rogen’s faux-campaign political send-up, registered -- again, because they lacked genuine wit. Likewise, the Coke ad featuring the Hulk chasing Ant Man over a soda can, just felt like the lazy scripting of a core conceit that was itself uninspired.
To be fair, I will call out some better-than-average advertising. The Axe “Find Your Magic” spot was probably the most effective branding exercise of the night. In a fun channeling of the self-esteem ads usually aimed at women, the ad invited men to embrace a perceived "flaw" as a signature strength. The Jeep ad that used iconic black and white imagery of grimy faces in mobile portrait mode was visually engaging in its stark contrast to the stock CGI trickery of standard Big Game advertising. It was also spot-on branding.
Otherwise, the game ads only called attention to the crisis in media and advertising. The Super Bowl has become more of a mass media moment precisely because we are watching mass media and advertising themselves lose the power, reach and authority they had for a century. It is among the handful of communal media events left, and so its glamour increased in inverse proportion to the historical reality of institutional decline.
Similarly, the power of advertising to grab collective attention and serve the interests of brand marketing is in historic decline. This year the reality seems to have caught up with us. The scramble to be creative in the ad pods and for the game (and NFL) to remain culturally relevant felt more like last gasps.
Like politics this year, the Super Bowl ads were reminding me of a basic tenet of rhetorical analysis: ask first how the speaker is constructing her audience. In both cases -- political discourse and SB50 ads -- I found myself asking the same question: do they really think I am this dumb? The ads were so cloying in their attempt to get attention amidst the clutter, they seemed to echo the writhing of 16 Republican candidates struggling to get noticed by using transparent debate tricks. Or, it was like watching two Democratic candidates argue over who is most "progressive."
There seemed to be an underlying presumption at work in both the big game and the big political show that the game audience and the electorate had been so dumbed down, so beaten by it all, that all modes of address must be reduced to their most basic, transparent, indelicate, uninspired and uninspiring elements.
The implosion of the Super Bowl ritual is no more evident than in the ads that did break through to me. Both were about causes not unrelated to the dark sides of sport culture. Helen Mirren trash-talking drunk drivers with her withering British sternness was a wonderful use of celebrity that so far outpaced the uses of Liam Neeson, Amy Schumer, Anthony Hopkins and even Christopher Walken, it underscored just how bad those other ads were. And of course it is a counterpoint to drunken rituals often associated with sporting events that are themselves underwritten by alcohol promotion. And the NFL-sponsored PSA against domestic violence (for the NO MORE non-profit) was masterful and chilling. A texting screen shows an exchange that infers an abusive relationship. The spot ends with one asking the other if she is OK, only to be answered by the interminable text writing bubble.
There were no soaring (if cringe-worthy) invocations of patriotism among this year’s ads. And nothing was designed to make you cry (where were the Bud puppies and horses?). But there was this PSA that reminded us of the complicity of silence and disinterest when it comes to domestic violence -- the sins of the NFL itself. Which is to say that the two most powerful ads of the night were attempts to walk back the moral lapses of commercial institutions.
In both politics and Super Bowl, perhaps in advertising itself, this weekend made me ponder whether there is not only a crisis of creativity at hand, but that there is some basic disconnect between the institutions and the role they once played in our lives.
It is too easy to blame a Donald Trump for the eruption of vulgarity in political discourse or the mean bigotries and resentments that have come to the fore in this cycle. Those sentiments, held by politicians and some voters, have been there all along as we have polarized. Vestigial political etiquette papered a lot of this over for years, making some expressions taboo. Ugly as it is, this election cycle may be a raw expression of just how detached our politics is from its original purpose. Winning, exercising resentments, beating up on opponents now seem more important than moving the country forward.
And even though the Super Bowl has become banal in striking contrast to our current politics, it may be imploding in the same way. The commercial rituals around it have now become so self-referential, so transparent and rote, they are detached from any original purpose -- at least to entertain, if not inspire the national faith, consumerism.