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The Shameless Sentimentality of Super Bowl ads

Last night marked one of the biggest annual sporting events in the US, a collection of glitz and glamour on the gridiron. This year’s event had some additional fireworks in the form of a halftime show by Beyoncé that brought down the house and a 35 minute power outage in New Orleans’ Superdome that attracted more attention than the prolonged infrastructure problems New Orleans is still experiencing in a post-Katrina world, let alone the post-Sandy damage the East Coast is still recovering from. Let us ponder, for a moment, the absurd grossness involved in the expenditure of vast sums of money by organisers and attendees for the Super Bowl when many communities in the region still lack basic needs.

The Super Bowl has become not just the crowning moment of football, but also a phantasmagoria of advertisements; one might reasonably say that the game play is wedged between the ads, rather than the other way ‘round, and the tradition of dissecting the ads on the day after has become well-established among the media. Super Bowl ads and the response to them provide a fascinating insight into the imagination of ad campaigners and designers as well as residents of the US as a whole.

This year’s ads veered towards the sentimental, with three particular advertisements standing out in terms of attempting to yank at the heartstrings of the audience with narratives so bathos-laden that it was often difficult to tell what was being advertised. Apparently this is what passes for subtlety nowadays.

Budweiser’s ‘Brotherhood’ spot took a sharp departure from the usual ads featuring the beer company’s famous Clydesdales. Instead of showing the horses in action, the ad took us through the story of a farmer raising a colt to adulthood and selling it to Budweiser, misty-eyed as his beloved horse is trucked away in the Budweiser van; viewers were treated to a touching scene of the farmer standing alone in the field looking after his lost equine friend as the truck vanished down the road.

But lo! Several years later the farmer sees a notice that the horses are coming to Chicago, and he comes to the City to see them; pushing to the front of the roadside barrier, he proudly watches the horses go by, and is deeply saddened when his former companion doesn’t acknowledge him. As everyone packs up to go home, the farmer sadly gets in his truck and starts to pull away, but…what’s that he spies in the side mirror? A horse! Galloping down the emptied streets of Chicago! It’s his old friend come to say hello!

Critics noted that the ad seemed targeted at the female demographic, as evidently these sorts of ads are supposed to call to the sensitive, nurturing, tender nature of the ladies, while men can stick with the mysterious attractive women featured in the the beer company’s Black Crown advertisements. With more women watching the Super Bowl and other sporting events than ever before, it seems, we’re going to be treated to more of these mawkish ads in a pathetic, sneering, and sexist attempt to adjust to the change in demographics.

Meanwhile, Jeep went with an utterly bizarre two minute spot, ‘America Will Be Whole Again,’ which pandered to nationalistic ideas of patriotism while attempting to sell cars at the same time. Opening with a quote from Oprah Winfrey and narrated by her as well, the ad took viewers through a series of scenes intended to make them all teary-eyed, telling them about all the people, things, and events waiting for servicemembers currently stationed overseas.

Children, dogs, and crying spouses (always women, of course, for the only servicemembers are men) bespangled the scene along with US flags in an explosion of nationalism interspersed with strategic footage of Jeep vehicles to remind viewers that this was, after all, an advertisement. How could one possibly buy any other sort of car after watching such a touching and patriotic display? Indeed, owning anything other than a Jeep might as well be an act of treason, because if you’re not driving a Jeep, obviously you don’t care about servicemembers.

Set aside the huge and high costs of war, both within and without the US. Set aside the suffering endured by vets waiting for benefits and fair treatment as promised to them in exchange for their service. Set aside the sheer gall of exploiting the lives of servicemembers in order to sell cars. Twitter was afire with people asserting that this advertisement made them cry; I can only hope they were tears of shame for such a rank example of crass commercialism.

And then, of course, there was the ‘Farmer’ spot run by Ram trucks, which read like ‘a commercial for whiteness,’ as a comment from Brentin Mock flashing by in my Twitter stream noted. Narrated from beyond the grave by right-wing commentator Paul Harvey, the ad featured a series of ‘farmers,’ all driving and using Ram trucks, informing viewers that farmers are ‘God’s creation’ and that, of course, they’ll only be seen behind the wheel of a Ram.

Harvey’s ‘So God Made a Farmer’ speech is from 1978, and allegedly came from a listener. It’s been repeated and given in various iterations throughout the years, but one thing remains consistent: it is very specifically a conservative, white, evangelical Christian depiction of the United States and what farming life is like, and it is very much not about the reality of farming and the faces of the people who grow, harvest, and handle the food produced in the US.

The ad featured a lone woman farmer, and all of the other women were firmly positioned as wives and homemakers preparing meals and participating in similar activities; it reminded us that a young man might want to grow up to do what his daddy does, but said nothing about farmers’ daughters. And, strikingly, only two Latinos were featured despite the fact that 77% of farm workers in the US were born in Latin America.

According to this commercial, women farmers and farmers of colour basically don’t exist. Farming is a white man’s job and the Ram is a white man’s truck. ‘To the farmer in all of us,’ said the end card, playing upon the common starry-eyed vision of farming that can be seen among urbanites and suburbanites in the United States. It’s this very idealisation of farming that led to the sharp increase in the number of SUVs in the United States, as these vehicles came to be adopted by people who very much didn’t need them despite their low gas mileage, potential dangers, and other problems. Now, Ram is playing on the same emotional thread to push people into buying trucks they probably don’t need.

As Kate Harding astutely pointed out, the use of Paul Harvey was not a coincidence. It’s not that the speech fit the ad; it’s that Chrysler wanted to work a very specific angle with the advertisement, and that was the ‘God, farming, and apple pie’ vision of the United States. It’s already being hailed as one of the most striking and compelling entries in the Super Bowl advertising melee, but it says more about a false, imaginary version of the US than it does about reality. The neat erasure of the people actually doing the farm work in the US spoke volumes about the target demographic of this advertisement.

The raw sentimentality in all of these spots speaks to a country of people living in fearful, restless times who want some kind of reassurance that the American Empire is not yet dead. By providing that reassurance, these ads may push people into buying products, but they won’t solve the larger problem: the US is crumbling at the seams, and no amount of capitalist glue can hold it together.