Each year, the great minds that sell us so many of our beloved consumer staples get together to assess the state of the American psyche. Is America tired? Hangry? Missing the golden age of Bruces Willis and Springsteen, the Buick GNX, and avuncular sexism?
Believe it or not, this meeting happens not at a Madison Avenue steakhouse, or atop a mountain in Jackson Hole, or even in Papa John Schnatter’s meteor-crater lair. Instead, it plays out in full view of the American public during the 47 hours or so of television advertisements that punctuate the Super Bowl. As the nation’s burliest athletes wrestle each other’s lycra-clad bodies for control of that most potent symbol of fragile masculinity (literally an ovoid ball), corporations take stock of a more general struggle happening off the pitch: an existential crisis that concerns the very fabric of the American character.
My friends, let me be clear: The state of the union is not looking good. Last year, while America was indubitably suffering through a kind of malaise, there was at least the promise that brands could fix it. There was CrossFit to make us buffer, and Jeff Bridges to sing us to sleep, and Snickers to literally reverse the transformation of kind sweet blonde women into aggressive, ball-busting Danny Trejos. The little Italian Fiat accidentally swallowed erectile-dysfunction medication and became a swole, ripped, protruding manifestation of American power. Women became attracted to men with big trucks. And women did other things, too—they skied and had big houses and #ranlikegirls. It was a complex time, but with a ray of hope refracting its way through the ocean of Budweiser-flavored despair.
Not so much in 2016. We’re so alienated from real emotion that all-day McDonald’s breakfast is the closest thing we have to love.
If anything, the 2016 Super Bowl ads, in all their greying, hyper-consumptive glory, might be both symptom and cause of the Donald Trump ascendancy, in which Marco Rubio and Madison Avenue alike try desperately to woo disillusioned Boomers while also proving they’re hip enough to capture the youth vote. (Case in point: Jeff Goldblum, playing piano in a winch on the side of the building, then running smack into Lil Wayne and George Washington having a cookout).
In fact, was there a male Hollywood star from the 20th century who didn’t show up? Willem Dafoe, enduring the nightmare of being subjected to the male gaze for the first time in his life while dressed in women’s clothing and standing over a subway grate. (Bonus points for Eugene Levy as his long-suffering director). Alec Baldwin, loudly extolling the many virtues of his penis-shaped Amazon Echo to Missy Elliott. Harvey Keitel, driving a Mini alongside Serena Williams and T-Pain. Liam Neeson appearing in a Tron remake that also doubled as a television ad. Scott Baio, cryogenically frozen and being exhibited to a room full of aliens. Anthony Hopkins, using his magisterial thespian powers to winkingly endorse TurboTax.com in an interview with a journalist. Christopher Walken, telling a man whose life has become consumed by monotony to liven things up by buying a Kia. “It’s like the world’s most exciting pair of socks, but … a midsize sedan.”
These ads, believe it or not, weren’t even the depressing ones. Craven, yes. Hyperactive, sure. Prostrate before the altar of the fickle god greenback, absolutely (it’s the Super Bowl). No, the actually tragic 30-second slots were the ones that held a mirror up to nature, as it were, revealing the sad fact that the most gridlocked place in the nation isn’t Washington. It’s the American colon.
And do we have to anthropomorphize everything now? M&Ms are one thing, disturbingly cannibalistic though it is to make candy into a cute charming character. And sheep totally get a pass. But razors?
Our freaking intestines??
And when ads weren’t turning benign household objects into adorable characters, they were turning adorable animals into FOOD.
Look, I get it. We’re still recovering from the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. Times have been hard. Everyone needs a little R&R. So perhaps we could all do without the recurring reminders from the NFL that despite the opioid-induced constipation, the man buns, and the fact that not every man in America does in fact look like Ryan Reynolds, we were all supposed to have sex after the game. Or as my colleague Yoni Appelbaum put it, Super Bowl and Chill.
This despite the fact that women in this year’s Super Bowl ads were a nagging, shrewish bunch. There was Helen Mirren, reminding everyone not to drink and drive by sipping a Budweiser and calling them names.
(These aren’t even good British insults, okay? If you really want to shame someone in a plummy RADA accent, try calling them an abortive, elvish-mark’d, rooting hog. Or a loggerheaded knotty-pated flirt-gill. Or a cullionly fly-bitten horn-beast. Or a cockered flap-mouthed clack-dish. We can do so much better than “pillock.”)
Then there was Emily Ratajkoswki, diving for a bouquet at a wedding because she’s desperate to trap some poor sap into marriage, despite the fact that she looks like the offspring of Venus de Milo and a blowup doll.
Thank God for the super-chill femme du jour, Amy Schumer, running for office with Seth Rogen on a platform dedicated to Making America Drink Bud Light again and promising “the biggest CAUCus in the country.”
I could go off on a tangent here about the latent fears of paternity and procreation embodied in the hideous puppymonkeybaby Mountain Dew ad and the Doritos commercial where a man literally used flavored corn chips to pull a fetus out of his wife’s vagina. Or the self-loathing implicit in the Skittles ad where Steven Tyler saw his likeness in a candy-colored work of art and was so struck by the truth that he was compelled to destroy it. Or the complex semiotics at play in an ad presenting beer that insults you as a compelling product.
But in the cold light of day on the morning after, it feels too unnecessarily high-resolution a portrait of the American psyche. There’s no paternalistic Kevin Hart to take care of us. No car that can remind us of the dreams we once had while walking on the moon. No Coke Mini to unify the wrestling ids of Hulk and Ant-Man inside every fragile soul. No more The Good Wife! So let us drink Death Wish coffee to kick start those plasticized intestines and embraced our fractured and dissonant reality. At least until football season starts again.