Monday, February 8, 2010

Stupor Bowl

Ah, the Superbowl, the one day of the year where Americans sit on their asses for five hours, gorging themselves and watching tv, and actually critically engage the commercials that every minute destroy consumer choice and rob Americans of their individual desires. In a society where importance and expense are synonymous, it is the ‘most important’ advertising day of the year. In short, Superbowl commercials are the most concentrated spectacular display of American fears and desires, (“fears” because what do commercials do other than replace fear with desire?) as seen by the capitalists who produce them.

This year the most controversial ad was supposed to be Focus on the Family’s anti-choice propaganda, but it played almost even-handed in comparison to the onslaught of misogyny, alienation and misanthropy on display in the other ads. Audi presented a fascistic future in which “green police” would arrest you for using the wrong light bulb. Dodge offered up a series of men staring straight into the camera, while a voiceover droned in miserable monotone about submitting all of their free will and happiness to their bosses and their wives, with the car being tagged “Man’s last stand”. Budweiser had a thousand people turn themselves into a human bridge a la Buzby Berkely, or more accurately Albert Speer, so that a Bud truck could arrive at their bar, where they could then buy the beer.

Perhaps the most symptomatic ad of the evening was one from Bridgestone tires. A car speeds across a post-apocalyptic landscape, and stops at a roadblock, where a leather-clad cyborg-ish man declares in a menacing accent “Your tires or your life.” Suddenly, the passenger door opens, and a sexy, post-apocalyptically (which is to say scantily) clad woman stands, bewildered, outside the door. The car screams away, and the man cries :“Your life, not your wife!”

On display last night in commercials by Doritos, Budweiser, FloTV, Dockers, and others was not the standard misogyny of advertising: ie, a sexy, bikini-clad girl standing next to pizza. These were narrative ads depicting men being made miserable by their wives and girlfriends, with the product being promoted as a solution to this misery. Rarely since the end of the Bush administration has such straightforward contempt been on display in every home in America.

The New York Times, in a typically weak critique, has pointed out this misogyny: “There seems to be a theme in many of the Super Bowl spots: the need to reassure men that they are as manly as they hope they are… [the Dodge ad] showed men thinking to themselves about the women in their lives. The thoughts were not of the type to win plaudits from feminists; they were grudging and stereotyped.” But the Times failed to realize why these men need to be ‘reassured’. Or rather the Times, as always, failed to ask.

Today, with unemployment, political impotence, debt and fear for the future at an all time high, Madison Avenue can no longer sell with images of affluence and happiness. The distance between the reality of working class lives and the dream image of superbourgeois luxury has become too great. Even Coke ran an ad with the Simpsons’ Mr. Burns, archetypal arch capitalist, being foreclosed out of home and possessions. Americans (men and women, because in a society in which misogyny is so deeply ingrained, women self-identify as sexy hate-objects, and like it) see themselves in the landscape of the apocalyptic Bridgestone ad, which echoes the worlds of such recent movies as The Road, Book of Eli, 2012, etc. This year advertisers could not even promise the lie of affluence and happiness being one new car away. Instead, they can only offer their products as ameliorators against the degradation of 21st century America. Desperate to increase sales, advertising must make visible and obvious its most powerful tools, hate and alienation, in order to rationalize buying new tires, or more beer, or better pants.

But if advertisers feel the need to turn up the heat, perhaps it is because they unconsciously sense that the current state of affairs will be bad enough to allow the alienation they now visibly exploit to slip away. Advertisers fear an awakening of Americans to the material reasons for their suffering and thus to a moving away from the mad, spiraling self-consumption of the last thirty years. To prevent this, advertisers must make sure that the misery of American consumers remains a spectacle, an image that can be bought and sold, so Americans keep groping for their wallets instead of their guns.

-- No Innocents

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