The best part of last night’s Super Bowl was the game. But, the ads and the ceremonies that peppered the televised spectacle were more instructive about the state of our culture and the verdict they rendered was decidedly mixed.
I am generally a fan of President Obama. But, I don’t want to see an interview with the guy in the middle of my Super Bowl prep unless he is showing us a family chili recipe.
And, what is with the aging rock stars? Was anyone thrilled by the half-time show that featured the rock group "The Who"? Who knew the Who were still singing? They are ancient. Old news. Not at all hip. I am sure they were tested by market strategists and deemed safe for one of the largest national audiences of the year, and safety seemed to be the theme of both the ads during the game and the hoopla surrounding it. Another golden oldie, by Steve Winwood, "Bring me your Higher Love" was sung before the game. I remember that from high school. And the hard rock group "Kiss" appeared in an ad, their once fit bodies now clearly showing middle aged paunches. Are there no new rock groups? Is "retro rock" a cultural meme?
Of course there are new groups and edgier themes, but market researchers and ad execs like safe, as do their corporate bosses. Businesspeople prate on about innovation and risk, but they really like government subsidies, tax breaks and safe marketing strategies that are so boring they could not possibly offend. Even the controversial Tim Tebow ad about abortion was not really about abortion, in fact I am not sure what it was about except a nice looking Mom being loved by her nice looking son, which is fine, but I wonder how many people put down their buffalo wings to write down the website name of Focus on the Family that sponsored the ad. And, the Tebow ad was completely upstaged by the Betty White ad for Snickers. That was funny. Funny, too, were the E-trade ads and the Doritos ads. But, most of the ads were bizarre or boring. You have to wonder what is going on in the zeitgeist when so many ads feature people in their underwear.
Avant-garde is not an English phrase. Nor is bella figura. It is a shame. I could not help remembering the celebrations in Paris for the bicentenaire. In addition to the traditional military parade, they had a very avant-garde parade in the early evening, that finished at the Place de la Concorde. All the lights went out except for a few spotlights at the foot of the great column in the center of the square. There was American singer Jessye Norman, wrapped in a giant tricoleur, singing the French national anthem. I remember thinking what kind of outcry you would get if an American celebration of Independence Day featured a French singer? But, the whole French festivities had a, dare we say, joie de vivre, that the producers of the Super Bowl and its ads entirely lack.
I just finished reading Alan Lichtman’s book "White Protestant Nation" which has been my bedtime reading the past few weeks. A central theme of that work is the way our culture yearns for an anti-pluralist cultural ethic that is more than a bit dull. Lichtman shows the ways that Protestant culture, especially southern Protestant culture, intermixes with the corporate ethos to produce this dull, conservative bias in the broader culture. Or, in light of last night’s Super Bowl, we might ask: Who dat running the ad agencies (and the corporate boards that hire them) that produce so many boring ads and retro rock stars?