Super Bowl Sandinista

We’re not even a minute into Super Bowl XLIII when Manhattan’s last remaining hippie decides it’s time to start in with the harangue. You know, that annual disclaimer about sport and advertising that is at once both cloyingly naive and contemptibly smug.

“I can’t stand football. I’m only here to watch the commercials,” he mumbles from within the folds of the unrefined fibers of his poncho, and almost immediately everyone within earshot is entertaining dark thoughts. By halftime, some of the more excitable Steelers fans are openly referring to the guy as Clark Kent State, a hybridized reference to his chunky horn-rims and our shared desire to see him ventilated by National Guardsmen.

Now, by and large, the people gathered to watch the game are an affable bunch, an assortment of even-tempered citizens who recycle and run half-marathons and do charitable work when they’re not racking up the billable hours. But there’s something about the hippie guy, something beyond his indifferent personal hygiene and his well-rehearsed dismissal of America’s No. 1 secular holiday, that has everyone in the room giving him the stink eye whenever he revisits his thesis.

“There’s no spontaneity to this sport,” he drones, shortly after Steelers halfback Willie Parker is stopped after a two-yard gain over the left tackle. “But the ads, that’s where it all happens. That’s the true national pastime: unfettered capitalism.”

If you’ve never been lectured about the evils of the free-market economy by someone who smells like Michael Phelps’ bong, you may be surprised to learn that a small measure of truth sometimes colors even the most strident philippic.

Somehow, the anti-football fellow has absorbed the particulars of NBC’s rate card, or at least the oft-repeated base rate of $3 million per spot. “That’s $100,000 a second, brah,” Li’l Wavy Gravy informs me, although he stops short of estimating a CPM. (With an all-time record 98.7 million viewers tuning in to last week’s instant classic, the cost for advertisers to reach 1,000 viewers on NBC was about $30.39.)

Eventually, my hirsute pal wanders off to go hector someone else, and I’m allowed to rejoin the frenzied chatter that serves as a sort of metacommentary on the game. While Al Michaels and John Madden are doing a tremendous job in the booth, most of us are engaged in our own play-by-play/analysis. Reverberating through all the chalk talk is the steady thrum of prop bet haggling — over/under on NBC cutting to a tight shot of the newly mullet-free Brenda Warner: (+/- 6); odds that Springsteen will play “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out”: (20 to 1).

But while I don’t think I’ve ever attended a Super Bowl party where so many people seemed to know as much about the particulars of the spot load, the interest in the commercials fades from mild curiosity to all-out indifference long before James Harrison’s 100-yard TD trudge in the waning moments of the first half. This is particularly odd because (a) 35 percent of the attendees admit to having watched less than three regular-season NFL games, and (b) many of the prop bets have to do with the creative. Over/under on spots featuring animals that aren’t Clydesdales: (+/- 7.5).

In my admittedly unscientific survey of ad-viewing habits, I discover that nearly all of the 27 people on hand perk up whenever some horrible act of violence breaks out, or an animal rears its shaggy and/or feathered head. Slapstick generates the most visceral responses, as many of us whoop it up for the consumer-generated Dorito’s spot that ends with a potentially lifestyle-altering groin injury. (As one of the female litigators in the group notes, “Testicular mayhem is never not funny.”)