The Commercial Super Bowl: Voyeuristic Horndogs, Hot Babes, Flatulent Slackers, and God's Quarterback Star in the Big Game
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In 1987, an evangelical Christian missionary in the Philippines, Pam Tebow, sick and near term, ignored doctors’ advice to abort her fifth child. How could they know he would grow up to win a Heisman Trophy and lead the University of Florida to two national titles?
Twenty-three years later, before he even turned pro, Tim Tebow made himself the player to beat in Sunday’s Super Bowl XLIV by starring in a 30-second commercial for Focus on the Family, a Christian group that opposes abortion and same-sex marriage. That the ad would run represented a reversal of CBS’s long-time policy against advocacy ads. At this late date, it is still not certain if Tim’s creation myth will be included in the commercial, or even if the ad will be aired at all.
Whatever happens, the controversy put the game’s spotlight back where it belongs -- on the advertising.
Super Bowl Sunday is America’s holiest day, our all-inclusive campfire, and with 100 million viewers, almost half of them women, about as close as we get, without a presidential election, to taking the national pulse. The ads tell us who we are and where we are going. They are also Madison Avenue’s best chance -- at a reported $3 million or more a minute -- to create a buzz. In fact, in a world in which TiVo-ing is spreading like wildfire, they may be Madison Avenue’s last chance to actually get watched on TV.
These days, when it comes to Super Bowl ads, the buzz never dies as YouTube, best/worst commercial contests, chat rooms, and vigorous follow-up ad campaigns carom around the precincts of popular culture. Sacred, profane, gross, on-the-mark or clueless, the ads are cultural signifiers. If Tebow gets to pitch on Sunday, his ad will share the air with the basic football consumer groups: cars, tech, beer, soda, and chips. And, of course, he’ll be right there along with the stuff everyone is waiting to see -- like those three nerds leering at a naked Danica Patrick, the auto racer, for a website company, or that office jerk farting for an employment service.
I am a Super Bowl ad fan. I'd rather go to the bathroom during a third-down play than miss a commercial.
You’ll want to know my all-time favorites.
“You Should Be So Lucky”
For sheer prescience when it came to American foreign policy, nothing has beaten “Kenyan Runner,” a Super Bowl commercial that ran just before Team W led us to eight losing seasons in Afghanistan, Iraq, and at home.
Imagine a black African runner in a singlet, loping barefoot across an arid plain. White men in a Humvee are hunting him down as if he were wild game. They drug him and, after he collapses, jam running shoes on his feet. When he wakes up, he lurches around screaming, trying to kick off the shoes.
This was 1999, two years before the 9/11 attacks and the invasions that followed. The sponsor was Just For Feet, a retailer with 140 shoe and sportswear super stores that blamed its advertising agency for the spot -- before it collapsed in an accounting fraud and disappeared.
Colonialism anyone? Racism? Forcing our values on developing countries? Mission accomplished.
Then there was prescience on the domestic front in another Super Bowl ad, “Money Out the Whazoo”: imagine a middle-aged man wheeled into an emergency room. Doctors and nurses turn him over and someone says, “He has money coming out the whazoo.” A hospital administrator officiously asks his distraught wife if they have insurance. A doctor calls out, “Money out the whazoo!” The administrator says, “Take him to a private room.”