What the Super Bowl Ads Say About America

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What did I learn from watching the Super Bowl advertisements last night? Men are turning into girls. It's good to be green, but even better to laugh about environmentalism. The Super Bowl is an acceptable place to talk about baby politics and compoundable interest on the debt. Also, we're all going to die, so we might as well drink Bud Light.

Advertisements are an interesting reflection of culture. To be memorable, you have to shock without offending. That means you have to swim well within the the mainstream but also against the current. Here are the five ad memes I spotted last night:

Were Super Bowl ads always this obsessed about men avoiding emasculation? Probably. But last night, three ads in particular were a parade of anti-effeminacy. First, in a FloTV ad, play-by-play announcer Jim Nance advised a guy shopping with his girlfriend to "Change out of that skirt, Jason!" by buying a hand held TV device -- because what Real Men need is a mobile strategy for avoiding their girlfriends.

Second a Dove body wash ad follows a man's life -- from the moment of conception through marriage chores -- and concludes: "You're a man! Now that you're comfortable with who you are, isn't it time to [buy male gender-specific Dove body and face wash products]?" The implication was a little weird. Why do men have to prove that they're comfortably manly to buy their own body wash? Clearly Dove, nervous about their soft feminine branding, overcompensates a little here.

Third, and most bluntly, a Chysler Dodge Charger ad stares into men's defeated faces as they count off all the ways they've promised to emasculate themselves to please their bosses and wives. "I will be civil to your mother," goes the voice over. "I will put the seat down. I will take my socks off before getting into bed. And because I do this, I will drive the car I want to drive." And the words plastered over the awesome, manly image of a black Dodge zooming down the street: MAN'S. LAST. STAND. In other words: I will be miserable, and because I am miserable, I will drive a Chrysler. No, thank you.

I'm not sure what drove this particular bout of masculinity, but it's an interesting reaction to Bush years when it seemed like every ad made fun of super-masculine men rather than rushed to the defense of guys who feel emotionally sterilized. I wish I could properly explain the trend, but all I can honestly do is note that I'm seeing it.



2. Let's Laugh at Environmentalists!

Mainstream America has a tortured relationship with going green. Many of us who think we should be more eco-aware also feel a little silly about embracing environmentalism too strongly. This schizophrenia was on display in last night's ads. First in a Bud Light ad where a man builds a home out of beer cans, a girl compliments him for using recycled Bud Lights to insulate his house. "Enviro-what?" he responds. "Oh they're not empty..." In other words: Walls of cold beer! And the guys proceed to wreck the place in a thirsty frenzy.



In an ad for the new Audi A3 with clean diesel, a troop of "Green Police" terrorize a town by arresting people for using plastic bottles, installing fluorescent light bulbs and throwing out batteries. So we're advertising eco-awareness by ... mocking eco-awareness? "Environmentalists can be so over-the-top ridiculous, right? Hahaha. Buy our green car." Funny, but weird and revealing. Is this country really so skittish about being green that we have to self-deprecate our concern for the environment?



3. Drink at the Apocalypse

There were not one but two separate Bud Light ads about drinking in the face of death. The funnier spot, cleverly pegged to the Lost premiere, featured a haggard group of plane crash survivors who ignore a woman planning their escape when a guy finds the beverage cart: "It's full of Bud Light!" Boozing ensues.



In the other Bud Light ad, a group of scientists spot an asteroid approaching and ring in their doom with Bud Light. As we're coming out of (and in many ways, still in) the Great Recession, I suppose that a bit of gallows humor feels topical and ameliorative.

4. Internet Memes are Mainstream Memes

There is no way that my father or mother has ever seen the five-second YouTube clip of "dramatic chipmunk" turning to the camera over theatric, descending chords. But Carmax made not one, but two commercials of animals turning dramatically based on this clip. Spreading the joke out over two commercials -- dramatic cockatoo! dramatic monkey! -- felt old almost immediately. But the implication was interesting. Along with the Vizio ad starring Beyonce that showed a machine dumping YouTube celebrities into the belly of a phone, these commercials signaled that YouTube memes are now officially mainstream memes, too. I'd be interested to know how older viewers reacted to these ads.

5. Politics in the Super Bowl

Was anybody else surprised by all the political ads in the Super Bowl? There was that ad about the debt with children intoning scary things about compoundable interest rates. There was also, unfortunately, an ad from that debt-riddled government about the Census (as my colleague Dan quipped: Nice use of $3 million, gov!). There was the much-anticipated pro-life ad with college football star Tim Tebow and his mom (which I found very tasteful, and you can watch below). And there was a FloTV ad for handheld television that was basically a review of five decades in televised upheavel in America. Literally: Race riots! Impeachment! Wars! Timothy McVeigh! 9/11! Katrina! "Don't Miss a Moment!" Actually Flo, I would have liked to miss quite a lot of that stuff...

I'm all for bringing politics to the people, but I don't think it goes down well with chips and light beer.


1. Don't Be Such a Girl, Man

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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