Not So Super: Reading the Super Bowl Ads

I had a great time this fall working with video artist Kenzo Digital to identify zeitgeist-defining ads for the TED Ads Worth Spreading initiative. I think ads have a tremendous power to shape cultural dialogue and so it’s worth our while to take a critical look at them and see what kind of story they’re telling us about ourselves. Whether we agree with that story or not, it’s an influential narrative informing opinions (and potentially fueling stereotypes) all around the world.

So I was wondering what kind of story the Superbowl ads might tell us about ourselves this year. Having seen a lot of truly inspiring and technically brilliant ads with Kenzo, my hopes were pretty high. One overarching theme we discovered was an effort to acknowledge the impact – both serious and silly – of the increasing intermingling of our digital and physical lives. Many of the cutting edge ads from last year grappled with the disconnect between the rules of our online lives and the rules that govern our physical bodies. So I was sort of surprised to see so little engagement with these ideas in the hyper-expensive A-list ads that aired during the Bowl. Instead, it was the typical mélange of cute dogs, hot chicks and childish whimsy – in other words, stuff you don’t see on the field during the game.

Clint Eastwood’s somber Chrysler commercial served as a surprising counterpunch to the seemingly endless stream of male fantasy ads – from Matthew Broderick’s

Ferris Bueller redux to the sleazy GoDaddy ads that promise a heaven filled with naked chicks and cheap domain names. Any alien tuning into this little snapshot of our popular culture might be tempted to believe the following:

  • Men eat their brides
  • Women administer head-butts for Greek yogurt
  • Kids actually try not to pee in pools
  • Kias are sexy
  • David Beckham is “misunderstood”
  • Doritos can be used as hush money
  • We’re still celebrating the demise of Prohibition

Yes, I do want my own private zipline running through Manhattan (though I’d prefer a few in LA). And I wish it were the case that babies could be programmed not to poop, that rainstorms could help people lose weight, and that DMVs would serve ice cream cones. But, boy, I’d be thrilled if some of the most-watched messages in the world told us something more substantial about who we are, where we might be going and why we should give a damn.

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