The Consumer Republic

Ad Nauseam
I watched the Super Bowl like your average consumer – ready to see every ad in context and for the first time. Yet if I had been one of those citizen Caesars who gives thumbs-up or thumbs-down to the ads in postgame polls, I wouldn’t have contributed much to the scores of many spots.
Without prompting, I can recall murderous lizards, a couple of mosquitoes meeting their maker, a guzzling goose on the wing, Superman and Seinfeld, a blur of high-tech ads and a fog of movie commercials. (Memo to Hollywood studios tempted by the Super Bowl: Either blow up the White House, as the promo for Independence Day did, or save your TV budget for another venue.)
Yet at the same time, I found Super Bowl XXXII the most satisfying in years: a riveting game, plus a halftime show you could actually bear to watch, all larded with a bunch of pretty good ads. Fortunately, I took notes. This may sound like tepid praise, but in fact, it’s high kudos. Pace, the legend of “1984,” is a rare Super Bowl ad that in any year rises above “pretty good.”
For this itchy-fingered, zapper-armed viewer, the game was a TV event seldom experienced: an almost seamless four-hour stream of attention-getting spectacle. It was also, of course, a seamless four-hour stream of selling.
The only breaks in the action – i.e., the marketing – were those fleeting moments of live play, a mere quarter of the total show. From the Lays Pregame Show to the Wide-Track Grand Prix Post-game Show, every moment the ball wasn’t being moved at grotesquely named Qualcomm Stadium was colonized by someone selling. It’s hardly news that advertising and entertainment are merging into an indistinguishable whole. Yet watching the phenomenon unfold on marketing’s holiest showcase had the perverse appeal of a Salvador Dali painting: The distinctions between advertiser and vehicle melted right before your eyes.
Perhaps this explains why, for me, the most memorable advertiser of the evening was NBC, which made the most of its last fling with the NFL and seems unfairly ignored in the Super Bowl ad roundups. It wasn’t just the irritating nanosecond-long sweep of the peacock logo at the conclusion of every instant replay, a fashion sure to resurrect the debate over subliminal advertising and mind control.
NBC’s compulsive self-promotion had an unintentional valedictory air, as its glory days at the top of the shrinking network heap yield to a football-less, Seinfeld-bereft future.
In a Super Bowl littered with ads that nudged and winked at the media-savvy consumer, NBC led the way. In what was both a dirty trick and the ultimate compliment, a couple of spots for the obscure sitcom Working mocked Super Bowl advertiser Nike (sorry, but I’ll never look at that campaign the same way again), while the promo for Just Shoot Me, NBC’s Thursday night savior-in-waiting, featured semifamous comic David Spade shooed away from a pile of dough reserved for ER.
And why not? While only 35 million households actually watch ER, millions more know about the $13 million per episode NBC is paying for it.
Finally, if it weren’t for the network’s tireless flogging of its “right after the Super Bowl!” airing of 3rd Rock From the Sun, the ’98 championship might have been remembered as a Super Bowl without supermodels. Still, Frito-Lay’s Xena of the Laundromat, in her clinging whiter whites, did much to fill the void.
Looking over my chili-stained list of ads, a few more emerge from the general marketing murk, worthy of special praise or blame. Ranking high in the latter category was Intel Corp.’s “interactive” mystery, which turned a potentially powerful, if painfully obvious, ploy into an empty, boring gimmick.
The advertiser crowed that almost 389,000 people logged on to pick the perp, which comes to a little less than one-third of 1 percent of the game’s audience. That’s a good result? Anyone roused to interaction by a lure as lame as Intel’s obscure whodunit has to be an Internet junkie who will point-and-click on anything.
Coke’s “born red” spot is a case of a commercial whose conceptual austerity I found arresting, while believing it to be a lousy ad. For the past few years, the postmodernists at Coke have been moving their advertising away from the caramel-colored sugar water we actually drink. Instead, they’ve deconstructed the brand into its various signs.
First, there was the contour bottle. Now, it’s the selling of red. The brand’s first Super Bowl appearance since 1990 confirms the trend: Coke now markets its marketing instead of its soft drink. As any professor of cultural studies will tell you, in theory this is pretty nifty; in practice, the results are frosty – in ways that have nothing to do with a refreshing drink. ¡