By now, it's pretty much an accepted fact that a major part of the Super Bowl has absolutely nothing to do with which teams are actually inside the stadium vying for the coveted championship ring: it's what advertisers do to attract our attention during the game. And advertisers are willing to take a gamble with their wallets for the privilege. The cost for a 30-second spot airing on Super Bowl Sunday averages an obscene $4 million dollars. You heard me.......I said four million dollars. That comes out to $133,000 dollars per second. I won't examine the moral implications on how that money could be spent to better humanity, because no one really seems to care about that. And whether a commercial that Madison Avenue creates to promote an advertiser's product is genuinely effective in selling more soda, cars, gadgets also seems to be a moot point: since the Monday-morning quarterbacking in the media that assesses which ads scored and which ads bombed creates such a buzz, the old axiom of there being no such thing as bad publicity still rings true.
You can bet that advertisers cough up large sums of money to get ad agencies to pull out all the stops with their 30-second blitzkriegs, and that translates into pushing (or should I say, shoving) the proverbial envelope. After all, the average viewer's attention span is primarily reserved for what's happening on the field, so if that brief spot is going to leave any lasting impression, the ad agency will need as strong a defense as the team who eventually wins, and that means shock and awe. And shock. This year, there was a plethora of shock assaulting our senses during every single quarter: from the seemingly innocent Cheerios ad that wanted us to think that biracial families on tv are no big deal (news flash: a black man married to a white woman is still an affront to many, and not just in the deep South), to Coca-Cola's marginally disingenuous "We Are The World" ad (where the tune "America The Beautiful" is sung in the native tongue of various cultures), advertisers know that on some level, their faux-idealism is going to strike a chord both ways - with those who'll want to embrace the inherent Utopian model on display, and with those who will spout outrage over what they see as another example of why the world is going to Hell in a hand basket.
We can always count on sex being one of the commodities hawked to sell a product, from the salacious ads for GoDaddy and Butterfinger (after all, what is a Butterfinger if not a representation of a black man's penis) to the use-our-deodorant-and-get-laid ethos of Axe body spray (although this year, they decided to go with a Mission: Impossible theme instead), but the real winner in the shock and awe department wasn't Chevy (with its head-scratching rancher/breeder ad) but rival car manufacturer Chrysler. Back in 2011, agency Weiden + Kennedy was tapped by Chrysler to create a new image for the brand, and handed the purse strings for it's first Super Bowl spot. The group's "Imported From Detroit" campaign sought to restore confidence in American manufacturing, and its initial salesman was a brilliant bit of casting: Detroit native and millionaire rap artist, Eminem. While Eminem may not completely resonate with Chrysler's market demographic, the ad featuring the rapper canvassing the 8-mile housing projects he once called home (interspersed with working class heroes in the inner cities) had a ring of authenticity, and the interpolation of factory workers brought the blue-collar paradigm home. Of course, Eminem no longer lives in the projects, but his rags-to-riches story affirms the idea that in America, with hard work and determination, you can still attain the American Dream.
Last year, Chrysler tapped an even bigger cultural icon to sell the "Imported From Detroit" campaign: actor Clint Eastwood. Although the concept remained the same, this ad had the iconic tough-guy of "Dirty Harry" fame (seemingly) speaking in his own words about how great America still is. The result, however was that many folks felt they were witnessing the mental deterioration of one of its cherished heroes: at times, his monologue seemed disjointed, confusing, and even a tad desperate. You don't want your target audience to go away with the impression that you are desperate - so desperate, that you'd exploit a man into prostituting his image brand for your benefit. But just when I thought I'd seen everything in terms of what levels Madison Avenue would stoop to, we have this year's entry (embedded) featuring rock and roll's most celebrated statesman, Bob Dylan. It opens with a black-and-white shot of early Dylan performing in concert (most likely at the Newport Jazz Festival), and features Dylan playing guitar behind his voiceover narrative: "Is there anything more American than America?" he asks us, then proceeds to bring that point home with shots of rural USA interspersed with footage of cultural icons like Marilyn Monroe, James Dean and look, him! "You can't fake true cool/You can't import the heart and soul of every man and woman working on the line/You won't find a match for the American road, and the creatures who live on it" Dylan continues, emerging from a freight elevator, looking less a musical giant than some old man reading from a prepared script.
But the truly disconcerting moment happens toward the end: "Let Germany brew your beer/Let Switzerland make your watch/Let Asia assemble your phone...." and then inside a pool hall surrounded by locals brought to you by Central casting Dylan warbles, "We. Will Build. Your Car." Mister Zimmerman, I won't toss out words like "sellout", because you heard that accusation nearly fifty years ago when you went "electric" at Newport - it didn't faze you then, and I doubt it would faze you now. And Lord knows, this aint your first time at this rodeo: in 2007, you and your music were featured in a commercial selling the Cadillac Escalade. I'd be remiss if I only singled you out, so let me say I'm similarly pissed at commercials that have appropriated the songs of Creedence Clearwater Revival (Walgreens), Lou Reed (Honda, Sony Playstation), Led Zeppelin (Cadillac), Cream (Hyundai), and The Who (Nissan, Saab, Hummer, Sylvania, Gateway). Pete Townshend has publicly stated that The Who's songs are "my f---ing songs, and I can do with them what I like", and he does have a point. But the larger point is, why sell them? Do the songs have any intrinsic value beyond what you can get for them in a commercial? Is it ethically problematic to take songs originally written as social or political protest, and defang their significance for a quick buck?
This uneasy alliance between rock royalty and Madison Avenue isn't a recent development in popular culture - one can go as far back as the 60's (the most emblematic decade of social conscience and change) and find counter-culture icons like Donovan and Jefferson Airplane busking for Yardley and Levi-Strauss, respectively (though to their credit, pitching lavender cologne and blue jeans to your flower-power confederates doesn't seem nearly as egregious.) But when these lines continue to be blurred, it becomes painfully apparent that music, regardless of its aesthetic virtues is just another commodity, and commodities are to be traded - it's the American way. In that context, nothing could be more American than taking songs that have touched, inspired and emotionally transformed us for generations, and attaching a consumer brand to our cerebral consciousness. But if America is also about upholding certain ideals, virtues and institutions as revered, even sacred, then maybe we should be paying as much attention to how we are being manipulated by advertisers through the emotional connections music elicits in us, as we are by which team ends up winning the Vince Lombardi trophy. In the words of George Harrison, "We were talking about the world that's grown so cold/And the people who gain the world, and lose their soul/They don't know, they can't see/Are you one of them?"