30-Second Warnings


In 1987, an evangelical Christian missionary in the Philippines, Pam Tebow, sick and near term, ignored doctors’ advice to abort her fifth child. How could they know he would grow up to win a Heisman Trophy and lead the University of Florida to two national titles?

Twenty-three years later, before he even turned pro, Tim Tebow made himself the player to beat in Sunday’s Super Bowl XLIV by starring in a 30-second commercial for Focus on the Family, a Christian group that opposes abortion and same-sex marriage. That the ad would run represented a reversal of CBS’s long-time policy against advocacy ads. At this late date, it is still not certain if Tim’s creation myth will be included in the commercial, or even if the ad will be aired at all.

Whatever happens, the controversy put the game’s spotlight back where it belongs — on the advertising.

Super Bowl Sunday is America’s holiest day, our all-inclusive campfire, and with 100 million viewers, almost half of them women, about as close as we get, without a presidential election, to taking the national pulse. The ads tell us who we are and where we are going. They are also Madison Avenue’s best chance — at a reported $3 million or more a minute — to create a buzz.  In fact, in a world in which TiVo-ing is spreading like wildfire, they may be Madison Avenue’s last chance to actually get watched on TV.   

These days, when it comes to Super Bowl ads, the buzz never dies as YouTube, best/worst commercial contests, chat rooms, and vigorous follow-up ad campaigns carom around the precincts of popular culture. Sacred, profane, gross, on-the-mark or clueless, the ads are cultural signifiers. If Tebow gets to pitch on Sunday, his ad will share the air with the basic football consumer groups: cars, tech, beer, soda, and chips. And, of course, he’ll be right there along with the stuff everyone is waiting to see — like those three nerds leering at a naked Danica Patrick, the auto racer, for a website company, or that office jerk farting for an employment service.

I am a Super Bowl ad fan. I’d rather go to the bathroom during a third-down play than miss a commercial.

You’ll want to know my all-time favorites.

"You Should Be So Lucky"

For sheer prescience when it came to American foreign policy, nothing has beaten "Kenyan Runner," a Super Bowl commercial that ran just before Team W led us to eight losing seasons in Afghanistan, Iraq, and at home.

Imagine a black African runner in a singlet, loping barefoot across an arid plain. White men in a Humvee are hunting him down as if he were wild game. They drug him and, after he collapses, jam running shoes on his feet. When he wakes up, he lurches around screaming, trying to kick off the shoes.

This was 1999, two years before the 9/11 attacks and the invasions that followed. The sponsor was Just For Feet, a retailer with 140 shoe and sportswear super stores that blamed its advertising agency for the spot — before it collapsed in an accounting fraud and disappeared.

Colonialism anyone? Racism? Forcing our values on developing countries? Mission accomplished.

Then there was prescience on the domestic front in another Super Bowl ad, "Money Out the Whazoo": imagine a middle-aged man wheeled into an emergency room. Doctors and nurses turn him over and someone says, "He has money coming out the whazoo." A hospital administrator officiously asks his distraught wife if they have insurance. A doctor calls out, "Money out the whazoo!" The administrator says, "Take him to a private room."

The tag line was: "You should be so lucky." This was 2000. The sponsor was E*Trade, the online stock gambling outfit. How did they know that the economy was going to tank just when the health-care system would go up for grabs?

If you’d been paying attention to the ads instead of the game, you, too, could have sold America short.

My Super Bowl favorites, you might have guessed by now, are not consensus picks. Most fans seem to prefer the 1979 Coke commercial in which Mean Joe Greene, the Pittsburgh Steelers Hall of Fame defensive tackle, limps off the field past a young boy who offers him his Coke. Greene sucks it down and, as the kid turns away, says, "Hey, kid, catch," throwing him his jersey. While this ad is usually number one or two in best Super Bowls lists, it actually first aired several months before the game.

Oh, what a better time that was, when we truly loved our sports heroes and felt for them when they were beaten. The remake of that ad, in 2009, showed how much we’ve lost in 30 years. As Troy Polamalu, the Pittsburgh strong safety, limps off the field, a kid offers him his Coca-Cola Zero. Before he can take it, two Coke brand managers grab it and run off. Polamalu tackles them, grabs the bottle, drains it, then rips off one of the manager’s shirts and tosses it to the kid.

That snarky (post-irony?) parody of the iconic Mean Joe Greene commercial may be obvious enough, but that’s no reason not to pile on the subtexts: Labor and management in the National Football League are now gearing up for serious confrontations. The Supreme Court is hearing one of them — a challenge to the league’s anti-trust exemption which will have an impact on, among many other things, the sale of jerseys. No wonder Troy ripped the shirt off management’s back.

Root for Big Easy

The other main candidate for top Super Bowl ad in most of those lists is the 1984 commercial in which a woman runner, pursued by Orwellian storm troopers, runs past hundreds of gray people listening to Big Brother to smash the establishment (read IBM) with her sledgehammer. That Apple Revolution really freed us, right? In the quarter-century to follow, thanks to iPod, iPhone, and iPad, a generation without empathy, head down, shuffles into textiness. And Apple still doesn’t even have a majority market share.

(Non-Commercial interruption: Should you find yourself actually watching the game, root for New Orleans. Saints quarterback Drew Brees is a member of the executive committee of the NFL Players Association. In a recent Washington Post op-ed column he wrote: "[I]f the Supreme Court agrees with the NFL’s argument that the teams act as a single entity rather than as 32 separate, vigorously competitive and extremely profitable entities, the absence of antitrust scrutiny would enable the owners to exert total control over this multibillion-dollar business."  A final decision on what originally was a suit brought by a jilted gear supplier is expected this summer.)

The modern Mad Men and Women who call the signals for Super Bowl commercials are not always given as much credit as they deserve for grasping the American mood. Their most interesting ads can’t be taken at face value. For example, who could forget — although Holiday Inn seems to have tried — the 1997 class-reunion ad in which a hot babe struts through the party, chest out, her blond hair swinging, as a voice-over ticks off the part-by-part cost of her cosmetic surgery make-over? The message: her make-over involves mere thousands of dollars, compared to the millions Holiday Inn has spent on renovations. You must remember the tagline:  she’s finally recognized by a former classmate who sputters, "Bob… Bob Johnson?"

So what were the Mads telling us here? If pricey renovations were acceptable for corporations, they were also acceptable for ordinary people?  That Holiday Inn going upscale was no different from transitioning genders? Or, by extension, that anything a corporation can do, you can, too? In other words, corporate privilege equals personal agency.

And this was 13 years before the Supreme Court decided to extend individual freedom of expression to corporations. (Extraneous note: "freedom of expression" is now a tagline for a Botox treatment.)

The Snickers Smack

In 2007, when a General Motors ad showed a robot committing suicide after making an assembly-line mistake, the message seemed unclear (unless this was a Philip K. Dick dream). Shouldn’t it be the car-maker, in traditional Japanese fashion, who commits hara-kiri after years of colossal mistakes? But now we understand: it was an early warning — the American worker was at the end of the line; no handouts, pal, you’re on your own.

That was the same year when two men, simultaneously eating a Snickers bar, first touched lips during a Super Bowl game. When I initially saw it, I thought: if anything can conquer homophobia, it’s chocolate. But then they did the I’m-not-gay double take and began tearing off chest hair in a "manly" display.

The Mads had struck again, brilliantly reinforcing my own impression as a sportswriter that the NFL is the most homophobic, yet homoerotic, of team sports. With all that touching and hugging in public (and all that naked horseplay in the locker-room), no wonder some players have reacted with such hostility to the few who have come out after retirement. That Super Bowl ad will be at least an hour’s lecture in someone’s Queer Studies course.

Because of their insecure young male demographic, ads tend to be so aggressively and cartoonishly hetero that 1) there is no orientation issue, and 2) there is no threat of actually having to perform. You can watch sexy women the same way you watch football players — from a superior remove.

For example, in last year’s commercial for GoDaddy.com, the domain-name company, three nerds found they could control events from their laptop. Not only did they make Danica Patrick, an Indy driver, take a shower for them, but they added "that German woman from the dean’s office."

This year, Danica gets to flashdance and dress up like Marilyn Monroe. GoDaddy is known for ads, run relentlessly on the Internet, that are too risqué and provocative for the networks.

In this Sunday’s CareerBuilder spot, a cubicle clown ostentatiously farts, annoying a prim female co-worker. When the boss walks up, she thinks the jerk is cooked. But the boss lends the jerk his lighter to ignite the fumes. He wants the lighter back, he says; one imagines him farting, too.

Hey, boys will be boys. If she can’t take the heat let her go back to the kitchen. After all, this is 2010!

If it wasn’t in such company, I would be more concerned about Tim Tebow’s Focus on the Family commercial. I’d angst away: What does it really mean? What are the Mads telling us about the future? That the country is turning back toward the right? That the networks, in their twilight, need every buck they can get and don’t care where it comes from? That Tebow, who has always seen football as his pulpit to spread evangelical Christianity, is presaging a new era of star athletes standing for causes?

None of the above. It’s a hopeful message. Obama centrism will prevail, stabilize the country, and prepare it for progressive reform, because even football fans will understand that Super Bowl sideshows — be they about voyeuristic horndogs, flatulent slackers, star quarterbacks, or God knows how many holy day trippers jamming down food-like products and loser liquids — can be taken seriously only on Sunday. (Now, that may be the Philip K. Dick dream.)


Robert Lipsyte, a former New York Times sports columnist, is host of the PBS show on boomer aging, LIFE (Part2). His memoir, An Accidental Sportswriter, will be published in August by HarperCollins.  To catch him in an audio interview with TomDispatch’s Timothy MacBain discussing why sports matter, click here.    

[This article first appeared on Tomdispatch.com, a weblog of the Nation Institute, which offers a steady flow of alternate sources, news, and opinion from Tom Engelhardt, long time editor in publishing, co-founder of the American Empire Project, author of The End of Victory Culture, and editor of The World According to Tomdispatch: America in the New Age of Empire.]

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