America’s Existential Crisis, as Illustrated by Super Bowl Ads

The nation seems to need a hug.

Was it not two weeks ago that President Obama stood up in front of God, John Boehner, and a nation only watching in order to be able to turn public policy announcements into dubious Twitter jokes, and told that nation that everything was running splendidly? That the economy was fixed, and community college was going to be free, and women might one day get to suffer through the agony of childbirth without losing their jobs at the end of it? That was twelve days ago. What on earth happened?
America, judging by the Super Bowl XLIX advertisements, is suffering through the kind of existential crisis that only God’s iPhone, Marshawn Lynch’s Skittles, and a car with an erection can heal. America is hangry. America can’t sleep. America is very, very worried about getting old and irrelevant and physically stuck on the couch shouting at a football game while other, younger countries are going to super-cool Pac Man parties and flipping tires over for no discernible reason and seducing elderly wives in leopard-print camisoles. America might think this identity breakdown can be solved by buying a Chevy Colorado, which is focus group-proven to make people more attractive than, say, a simple Prius, but America is wrong. The hurt is on the inside. No truck-shaped penis extension can fix it.
Let’s start by addressing the aura of frantic masculinity that pervaded so many ads this year, as if a caveman himself had stumbled onto the field, ripped his bearskin loincloth off, and tried to wrestle Rob Gronkowski. For several weeks now, Chevy has aired a spot in which a man driving his eco-friendly car is followed everywhere he goes (office, elevator, car again) by the plaintive notes of “Rainy Days and Mondays.” This unwittingly sad man is juxtaposed with a smug, presumably childless (since he seems to care not a jot for the state of the environment) man driving a Chevy Colorado (to his office, no less), whose ever-present song is AC/DC’s “Back in Black.” This ad, with its unintentional wisdom (not least the revelation that the douchiest-looking guys really do have theme music playing in their heads), was followed during the Super Bowl by a spot that revealed that, yes, women do find men with bigger vehicles more attractive, neatly encapsulating the theme for the night of latent frustration and primal fear.
There were many, many car advertisements, almost all aimed at men of a certain age whose wives won’t let them ride a motorbike, and almost all with their own unwitting insight into the the nuances of the American psyche. Fiat, the saucy Italian soccer player to Chevy’s sturdy, possibly concussed American quarterback, debuted a new ad in which an attractive woman of a certain age beckoned her husband into the boudoir (there’s no other word to use but “boudoir” when animal print is involved). Her husband grinned, and groped frantically around his bathroom for the last remaining blue pill, only to accidentally throw it out the window, where it rolled and jumped around the streets of small-town Italy before landing in the gas tank of a teeny tiny Fiat. The car started bulging uncomfortably in odd places, doubled in size, and then stood proudly to attention while it drew the admiring glances of nearby women. Perhaps, prior to this ad, there were those who doubted the Freudian attachment between men and cars, but there could certainly be no disputing it afterwards. Bigger is better, as if the 300-lb men running into each other at full speed all night in order to protect an over-inflated ball hadn’t made this message obvious enough.
But alas! There comes a time in a man’s life when his truck needs to be fitted with a carseat, or traded in for something more sensible, like a minivan, or at least a vehicle with better gas mileage. For these men, sadly waving goodbye to their errant but much-loved youth, there was Pierce Brosnan, driving a Kia to a ski lodge, and desperately wishing things would blow up so he could have some more excitement in his life. And just in case the message wasn’t quite clear enough that existence is fleeting, Dodge collected a group of people who were quite literally 100 years old to lecture younger humans about the importance of living in the moment.
However, for these men, these responsible but not-exactly-thrilled-about-it scions of the mighty oak that is America, there also were plenty of paeans to the noble state of fatherhood. Like Nissan and Toyota and Dove’s odes to the dependable and irreplaceable dad, which clutched at the heartstrings as desperately as a drowning man clings to a life preserver. Thank you, dads. Thank you for … driving us around? For moisturizing adequately? Whatever it is, you are important, America is grateful, and by no means is this a clever sop to make you feel better about giving up the truck chicks used to dig so much.
And yet, the anxiety lingered. America is so exhausted and overworked that it has to miss the Super Bowl, and then get Jeff Bridges to lull it to sleep. America is so obsessed with youth that it’s taking part in a “Tough Dodger” triathlon, in which it runs and swims and cycles while people pelt it with balls. This clever Subway spot was made even more so by a painfully sincere Reebok/CrossFit ad that showed people doing endless pull-ups and throwing heavy things around while a voice entreated America to be “better leaders, better parents, stronger, more determined humans.” This message is all very well and good until you remember CrossFit primarily involves playing with ropes for half an hour and then puking into a bucket.
But no, America needs CrossFit, because it needs to be prepared for when God’s phone runs low on battery and the world rushes towards a conflagration of rage, insanity, and anti-gravity (thank you Mophie), or for when the angry person on the other end of a Clash of Clans game turns out to be Liam Neeson. America needs muscles in case it visits a town where all disputes are solved by arm-wrestling, or in case its puppy goes missing and it has to engage in mortal combat with a wolf.
Let’s pause for a moment to appreciate the Budweiser puppy ad, even though it shamelessly ripped off my personal favorite news story from 2014, in which a sad goat was reunited with his best friend, a donkey. In Budweiser’s world, wolves linger in the shadows but there are trusty Clydesdale horses ready to rescue us from evil, and those trusty Clydesdale horses are symbols of … our trusty trucks and cars! It all starts to come together. The Budweiser world is, however, blissfully simple compared to the Bud Light world, in which a man goes to a bar, orders a beer, and is suddenly confronted with the manifestation of a giant coin, which gives him access to a super-exclusive and not at all terrifying party in which he actually becomes Pac-Man and gets stuck in a giant maze. Maybe this is cool and fun if you’ve had enough to drink, who knows.
By the time that rad bro was running away from two life-sized iridescent Pac Man thingummies, and everyone was cheering, and maybe Skrillex was in the DJ booth, it was indeed obvious: America isn’t very good at growing up. It knows it needs to, because there’s nothing more obnoxious than a 40-year-old on a plane trimming his toenails and trying to ensnare hot women with Doritos (to his dismay, the hot women have grown up and have babies), which is why even Brett Favre is thinking about his future and making a website for his new small business, Favre and Carve. It needs to, because the women are competing amongst themselves over who has the biggest house and the raddest home ice rink and the best Wi-Fi, and running faster than the boys do, just #LikeaGirl. And while that horrendous Chevy man is riding between home and work and feeling proud of himself because of his absurdly oversized automobile, Amy Purdy is snowboarding and dancing and going to modeling shoots and running fast #LikeaGirl, all with the help of her dependable Toyota Camry.
Is it any wonder American men are scared? Is it any wonder corporations are trying to capitalize on these feelings of disempowerment to sell cars and beer and extreme workouts and candy made from high-fructose corn syrup? Is it any wonder that terrifying Danny Trejo is feeling a lot like Marcia Brady, or that all America really wants is to leave the country behind entirely and retreat to the ocean on a Carnival Cruise? The saddest thing of all is that there isn’t a quick fix for these feelings, but feeling them at all and acknowledging their validity is an important first step. So, with that, let’s all watch the Budweiser puppy ad together one more time, and remember that, deep down, unless they face off against a wolf for you, they’re only cars/beers/extreme workouts. They aren’t love.