Entertainment Geekly: The meaning of Super Bowl commercials, and how to fix them

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Entertainment Geekly is a weekly column that examines pop culture through a geek lens and simultaneously examines contemporary geek culture through a pop lens. So many lenses!

Do Super Bowl commercials really matter? Yes. Shut up. Sure, it seems strange that we should think about, care about, or devote any deeper-than-shallow national attention to advertisements representing millions of dollars invested by companies worth billions of dollars in the hopes that you, me, and everyone we know will give them at least hundreds of dollars. Did the great philosophers ever grapple with the subtext of a billboard? Did John Keats ever write a poem about a newspaper advertisement for a popular brand of absinthe? No. But Keats also didn’t live long enough to see a puppy fall in love with a horse.

Super Bowl commercials matter, but this year they mattered much less than usual. Because they were almost uniformly terrible. This is just one man’s opinion, but it’s an opinion that everyone shares. We as a species cannot really agree on everything, but we can usually agree on the Super Bowl. Everyone knows the Broncos were terrible, and everyone knows that the Super Bowl commercials were worse. The creative output on display came from a diverse array of authorial personalities. SlashFilm compiled a list of some of the directors who worked on commercials this year: Nicolas Winding Refn, David Gordon Green, John Hillcoat, Mark Romanek, all legitimate weirdos who delivered commercials that were both weirdly ambitious (compared to Super Bowl commercials of the past) and totally unmemorable (compared to the same.) Lots of people have lots of opinions about Hillcoat’s Coca-Cola ad, which proves that we as a country are incapable of talking about important things except through the prism of stupid things.

But the fact that the ad broke through speaks to the power of Super Bowl commercials. They represent an attempt by major companies to reach out to the most amount of people ever; in turn, because they are watched more than anything else is watched, they embed within us viewers some deeper notions about Where We’re At Now. This is not a process you can stop, nor should you want to: Goofy as they are, Super Bowl commercials are our last best chance at a common societal language, the monoculture’s last gasp.

Whether you love or hate Hillcoat’s Coca-Cola ad — and really, if you love or hate it, you need to learn how to modulate your opinions — we can all enjoy how the ad implies that one of the running narratives of American popular culture henceforth will be Liberal Sentimentality as opposed to Conservative Sentimentality. (The fact that an ad about America was directed by an Australian — paid for by a company that makes most of its sales outside of America — proves everyone’s point about America, whatever that point is.)

On a lighter level, Oscar-winning terrible director Tom Hooper made that commercial about British villains, which strikes me as the most coherent statement anyone has made about America’s current wave of Sherlock/Downton Abbey-era Anglophilia. We don’t like British villains because we think British people are evil: We like them because we think British people are cooler than us. (You could almost see that advertisement as a whole movie, with Ralph Fiennes and Benedict Cumberbatch and Alan Rickman.)

The worst and therefore most important ad this year, of course, was the Kia advertisement starring Laurence Fishburne, which dug up the corpse of The Matrix and dry humped it into dust. Lots of people got upset about Bob Dylan doing a commercial. I can sort of understand that, even though complaining that Bob Dylan has “sold out” feels like an argument that people have been having the entire time Bob Dylan has been Bob Dylan. (Though worth pointing out that the advertisement uses “Things Have Changed,” one of Dylan’s worst good songs — which could imply that this is yet another example of Dylan having his cake and deconstructing it, too.)

But for people of a certain age — people who were young enough and maybe dumb enough to take The Matrix seriously, of which, guilty — this is a psychic wound that will never be healed. The Matrix stood for a certain kind of late ’90s anti-something rebellion — corporations, consumerism, like life man — and so to see it 15 years later transformed into car commercial is both ironic and inevitable.

These ads were all interesting, I guess is what I’m saying, without being particularly good. They leaned too hard on nostalgia, which proves that we as a nation care too much about nostalgia. (That commercial for RadioShack was the killer app for my ’80s column, and also probably the last bit of ’80s nostalgia anyone ever needs to indulge in again.)

How can we fix this? Super Bowl ads are so beautiful now. Maserati’s Beasts of the Southern Wild remake and Axe’s Global Stereotype Circus look like they were shot everywhere using all the money. And yet: Boring. Dull. Uninteresting. You get the vibe that advertisers want people to feel everything – the complete sweep of human history, now buy some deodorant!

Weird as it is to say, GoDaddy is pointing the way forward. Yes, GoDaddy made its name as the trashiest of trashy Super Bowl brands, shamelessly appealing to the Bro demographic while shamelessly trolling the Irate demographic. But as a brand, this gave them a weird amount of confidence. I understand why a lot of people/everyone hated the Bar Rafaeli Kiss ad last year. It speaks to a whole weird assortment of gender-norm conversations we’ll probably still be having when our cyborg great-grandchildren shuffle us off to the retirement home.

But the brute-force effect of the ad is incomparable. Most Super Bowl ads flip around: Hyper-kinetic farce, fast-paced editing, helicopters, digital effects. The GoDaddy ad is composed of nine shots, one of which is just a long, long, long open-mouth kiss. It’s hard to think of another commercial that moves at such a gradual pace; hell, it’s hard to think of a major recent Hollywood movie that has shot a kiss like that.

Having achieved a new high/low, this year GoDaddy went the And Now For Something Completely Different route. The “I Quit” ad vibed like a stunt, but it also demonstrated a few noteworthy virtues. It told a simple, straightforward story about a single recognizable human character. The ad was about what the ad was about — domain names! — and not about, like, how the world is rill beautiful therefore ipso facto Maserati. The ad also stars John Turturro, a rare sort of great actor who has no persona to tap into: He’s miles away from, say, the Full House guys, who are clearly just in the ad so people can briefly remember Full House and then ponder how time takes it all away, in the end.

It almost feels like the whole cultural notion of Super Bowl commercials has gone to advertisers’ heads. They want to make something that matters, which perversely makes them matter less. Maybe next year, go big by going small. Tell a human story, not The Human Story. Don’t depend on nostalgia, invent nostalgia. This all seems silly, but it couldn’t be more important. If we as a culture cannot create good Super Bowl commercials, then we as a culture won’t really be a culture anymore.


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