Some watch the Super Bowl for the conclusion of the season’s football action. For others it is the food, the ritual, the chance to bond with friends or the excuse to yell. For 26 per cent of 18-24 year olds, the key moment is neither the touchdowns nor the taquitos, but the adverts.
This often skipped portion of any other programme is the pinnacle of the experience for many Super Bowl viewers. It is a cultural phenomenon, akin to the highly anticipated John Lewis department store ads, with months of production going into them.
According to superbowlcommercials.co (where you can watch the biggest moments of American advertising from the UK) each 30 seconds of ad time went for no less than five million US dollars in 2016.
With that kind of fee, the companies don’t take a second for granted; each advertisement represents an enormous amount of time and resources.
In the same vein as the John Lewis Christmas advert, Super Bowl ads rarely represent a single product or service, but rather promote the image of a brand itself. They are often broad and optimistic, or ‘inspiring’ reflections on life in the United States, with high production values.
With so much pressure on each second of advertising space and so many top-notch ads, each tries to outdo the last: to make an impression, to stand out, to keep your attention through half-time snacks and to stay with you past the last touchdown.
Snickers’s ‘You’re Not You When You’re Hungry’ ad campaign started with just 30 seconds during the 2010 Super Bowl, capturing attention with a performance from highly acclaimed actress, Betty White. In 2014, Budweiser, savvy to those viewers who would rather be watching the Puppy Bowl (traditionally aired at the same time as the Super Bowl), played on the phrase ‘best buds’ with an ad about a friendship between a horse and an incredibly photogenic puppy that stole my heart.
It isn’t just puppy-lovers who are pandered to. Women often feature in Super Bowl ads, sexualised despite a purportedly ‘family’ audience. For example, in 2011, a Sketchers commercial about working out opened with a sweaty Kim Kardashian moaning on a floor, her bare skin showing, before her sports bra was revealed. Many aim for humour or spectacle.
Nationalist sentiments also feature heavily, with constant spots of the American nuclear family, the suburbs, American icons, and mentions of ‘American Values’ such as individuality, freedom and self-expression.
In 2012, Clint Eastwood gave an emotional halftime speech in an ad for Chrysler, attempting to rouse and inspire the American people in the face of economic downturn.
This public spectacle is not void of ideology. It’s always fun whenever large, powerful organisations are vying for your attention but, when that attention represents the most watched moment of the year, does the distribution of information controlled by the highest bidder have ethical problems?
Certainly, in the past, Super Bowl ads have objectified women, normalised violence and promoted environmentally harmful products. But it isn’t only the biggest corporations who are sometimes able to secure ad space.
No More, a group aiming to prevent domestic violence, aired a commercial in 2015 that garnered millions of YouTube views and reached even more live viewers during the Super Bowl.
It featured a woman on the phone with a 911 dispatcher, pretending to order pizza in an attempt to get the police to come protect her from her husband, without him realising that she was contacting the police right in front of him. This thought-provoking scene, based on a true story, started a discussion about domestic violence nationwide.
Other times, the ads themselves can be an event: the first Macintosh computer was announced not at a press conference but in an iconic, science-fiction-like commercial that aired during the 1984 Super Bowl.
Whether or not the amount of power and influence the ads have is justified, whether it is used for good or bad, looking back on Super Bowl ads from the past can be an excellent reflection of our culture, while current Super Bowl ads can shed light on the United States.
While for fans, the football might be memorable, in the long run, it will be the expensively curated, carefully designed ads that will be remembered by history writ large.
Image courtesy of djanimal