Column: Wiley's Follies
Super Bowl Ads And Democracy
Published: Wednesday, February 6, 2013
Updated: Wednesday, February 6, 2013 23:02
November’s primetime election day coverage attracted 67 million viewers. On Sunday, Super Bowl XLVII drew 164.1 million. Hurricane Sandy—the most expensive natural disaster in United States history—sparked around 20 million tweets between Oct. 27 and Nov. 1, the days of impact and immediate devastation. Super Bowl XLVII generated 24 million tweets in one night. If government exists in the minds of the people, what’s truly governing the U.S.?
Winning an election is expensive. A 2012 victory cost the Obama campaign $985.7 million (and a loss cost the Romney campaign $992 million). Super Bowl advertisements, on the other hand, are relatively cheap. It cost a mere $3.8 million for a 30-second spot this year. Perhaps there is less at stake with a Super Bowl ad than a presidential election, but it’s naive to assume that makes them any less of a political force—Obama can change how the people are governed, but advertisers can change how the people govern themselves.
A silhouette walking through a tunnel, a mother alone at her son’s basketball game, a dinner table with an empty seat, a golden retriever bowing resignedly, smiling children at bath time, a father teaching his son to ride a bike, public schools, churches, a picture of a young soldier on a woman’s night table, a crying mother, a praying child, a soldier returning home from Afghanistan, riding in a Jeep Wrangler. Oprah’s voice, ending her narration with the declaration, “Because when you’re home, we’re more than a family—we’re a nation.”
This two-minute ad, run by the Chrysler Group, LLC, surely wasn’t just saying you should buy this car, but rather Americans should buy American cars. It wasn’t just about the integrity of their brand, but rather what the integrity of their brand could mean for larger institutions: churches, the public school system, and the family. The context is essential. Imagine the soldier returning home in a German-manufactured Mercedes-Benz—this simply cannot be. Suddenly those institutions seem invalidated. Suddenly the narrative isn’t of the American working class, but rather an aristocracy. Suddenly, the soldier isn’t a hero; he’s the fortunate one. You see, buying a car from Chrysler Group is a vote for our soldiers, a vote for the family, a vote for education. In this scenario, a product can make all the same type of promises as a presidential candidate.
The “America is Whole Again” Jeep ad, although perhaps most blunt, was certainly not the ad last Sunday mimicking the political process. Since 2006, Frito-Lay has been running the “Crash the Super Bowl” contest, giving consumers the opportunity to create their own Doritos ad. This year, over 6000 submissions were put up for election, and the two most popular candidates won a 30-second seat at the Super Bowl. These advertisements were elected by the people, for the people, and regardless of the outcome, Frito-Lay is the undisputed winner here. Still, the foremost end-result is far more enduring than that: the advertisement has established itself as a rudimentary form of government.
Perhaps the most prevailing characteristic of Super Bowl advertisements, in contrast with the commercials usually inhabiting primetime, is their celebrity endorsements. Amy Poehler and Best Buy, Kate Upton and the Mercedes-Benz CLA, Danica Patrick and Go Daddy—these advertisements are modeled after aristocracy, the many ruled by an elite few. In practice, Poehler’s successful comedic career should have nothing to do with the customer service at Best Buy, and yet, simply by her being, a system of power is established. The advertisement establishes its authority in Poehler’s endorsement, just as aristocratic government establishes its authority through the sovereignty of a privileged few.
A disenfranchised teen, dateless for prom, empowered by the keys to his father’s Audi S6, a heroic arrival, a spontaneous kiss with the prom queen, the wrath of an angry king, a narrow, bruising escape, the contentment of the people—French Revolution anyone? Perhaps arriving dateless to senior prom isn’t quite the Storming of the Bastille, but Audi’s advertising competitively priced luxury automobiles at this year’s Super Bowl? A decisive principle of revolution in effect.
If advertisements are in fact developing relatively refined characteristics of government, there comes the possibility of a people unknowingly living under a tyrant. Although this certainly can be implicated, I simply cannot see it as true. On the contrary, our democracy is expanded through these advertisements. After all, we choose our president once every four years. We choose our products several times a day. Who has your vote?