Sunday, February 04, 2007

The darkness of the Super Bowl ads:

Several of the ads aired during the Super Bowl had themes of violence and death. Here is a quick summary:

Company Ad
Bud Light Two guys vie for a bottle of beer. They agree to play rock, paper, scissors to determine who gets it. In that contest one of the guys throws a rock at the other's head and knocks him out.
Doritos Nerdy guy driving a car is distracted by a pretty girl walking nearby. The car crashes. The girl slips and injures herself as she goes to check on the guy in the car.
Coca Cola Grand Theft Auto style setting and characters where the 'hero' does nice things (pays for a drink - surprising the clerk who expected a robbery, donates to street musician/beggar, foils a purse snatcher). Office workers in the jungle are attacked and flee for their lives, eventually running off of a cliff and fall to their death.
Bud Light New greeting replaces 'fist bump'. It's a hard slap to the face (shown repeatedly with different characters).
King Pharmaceuticals
A man in a heart costume is savagely beaten by four street thugs: "high blood pressure", "diabetes", "overweight", and "high cholesterol.
General Motors A factory robot daydreams that it got fired for dropping a bolt. In the dream, the robot is seen around town moping while various GM cars pass by. The penultimate scene has the robot on a bridge and then making a suicide plunge into the river. (This makes it wake up back in the factory where all is well.)
Panasonic Tough Box A rugged laptop, good for police, firemen, and an infantry soldier in full gear wearing camouflage.
E*Trade A moderately realistic bank robbery. (Except for the bizarre masks, the tone was a serious one with the customers clearly frightened.) A "Survivor" setting where office workers battle each other in gladiator costume (made up of office equipment).
Bud Light A couple driving at night pick up a hitchhiker who has a large axe (and some Bud Light). Later, a second hitcher is seen, this time with a chainsaw.

Now there were other ads featuring confrontation or destruction; these were largely benign and lighthearted (but didn't help once you began to focus on the violence and destruction angle):
  • FedEx - At an office on the moon, a congratulatory slap on the back hurls a collegue into space where the man is destroyed by a meteor.
  • - a man with a personal navigator defeats the map-o-saurus monster.
  • Coca Cola - at a fantasy winter-wonderland 'factory', a bottle of Coke is filled and capped and a snow man is dropped into a shredder creating a spray of ice that cools the finished product.
  • Emerald Nuts - Robert Goulet trashes several office cubicles.
But the focus of this post are the ads in the table (above). What triggered it were the Bud Light ads. A guy throws a rock at somebody's head. Everybody slaps each other hard in the face. What does this mean, if anything?

That level of violence hasn't been displayed in Super Bowl ads before. Is it just a random phenomenon, or is it an indicator, however weak, of a change in the modes of thought in this nation? You could get political and argue that ever since the Iraq war got started, this nation, or at least a significant portion, has moved towards a more confrontational attitude in all things. Or maybe it's less the war, and simply a derivitave of the fierce competition that's been on display in television shows like "Survivor", "Big Brother", "Fear Factor", et al.

Or maybe it doesn't mean anything at all.

This blog isn't into speech restriction. And doesn't endorse crackdowns on video games like Grand Theft Auto. Free speech and customer choice and all that. But still, there are times when you've gotta wonder about the Zeitgeist.

UPDATE: This blog is not alone. The New York Times has an article, Super Bowl Ads of Cartoonish Violence, Perhaps Reflecting Toll of War (excerpts, emp add):
... the ongoing war seemed to linger just below the surface of many of this year’s commercials.

More than a dozen spots celebrated violence in an exaggerated, cartoonlike vein that was intended to be humorous, but often came across as cruel or callous.

For instance, in a commercial for Bud Light beer, sold by Anheuser-Busch, one man beat the other at a game of rock, paper, scissors by throwing a rock at his opponent’s head.

In another Bud Light spot, face-slapping replaced fist-bumping as the cool way for people to show affection for one another. In a FedEx commercial, set on the moon, an astronaut was wiped out by a meteor. In a spot for Snickers candy, sold by Mars, two co-workers sought to prove their masculinity by tearing off patches of chest hair.

There was also a bank robbery (E*Trade Financial), fierce battles among office workers trapped in a jungle (CareerBuilder), menacing hitchhikers (Bud Light again) and a clash between a monster and a superhero reminiscent of a horror movie (Garmin).
I didn't include the spot for Snickers in the initial blog post because it was just so far out crazy that it seemed to defy any analysis.

UPDATE2: There's more at the New York Times. From one of their entertainment blogs (Virginia Heffernan):
Oh man. We just had a kind of Brokeback Auto Shop ad for Snickers. Two guys working on a car start chewing a candy bar together and then come together in a big kiss. “Quick, do something manly!” one yells. They each rip off a chunk of chest hair.

Given a choice between last year’s Burger King ad, with its dancing girls dressed as the parts of a Whopper, and this year’s heart health ad, with its dancing old guys dressed as things signifying atrophying organs, give me the disgusting burger the girl-heap made in ‘06 any day. Watching that man in the heartsuit get bashed around was really enough to make me sob, and give up.

And then that GM car-making robot almost committed suicide by jumping into a river! WHAT IS GOING ON HERE?!


Hey, this is the US. It's only scandalous, if their is nudity involved. Violence is OK and healthy.
(in Europe it's the other way around).

By Anonymous Anonymous, at 2/05/2007 12:48 AM  

Everything was OK for the robot when it woke up, except for still working for GM.

By Blogger Mark Graban, at 2/05/2007 3:36 AM  

I loved the Careerbuilder ad, but only because I recognized its source - The Crimson Permanent Assurance, from the beginning of Monty Python's Meaning of Life. True, this Americanized version of it was darker, but still gave me the same thrill I got when I watched MP's creative genius bring fantasy to the office space.

By Blogger Reverend Robbie, at 2/05/2007 7:02 AM  

It's either sex or violence. Since the fallout from the Janet Jackson incident is still being felt, they probably thought it was safer to go with violence.

By Anonymous Anonymous, at 2/05/2007 7:14 AM  

It's lazy writing. Sex and violence are cheap and easy gags. I dream of the day that he "Super Bowl commerical" hype goes the way of the wishbone formation.

By Anonymous Anonymous, at 2/05/2007 7:22 AM  

If you were bolted to the floor in a GM factory, you'd have dreams about jumping off a bridge too.

In a slightly more serious vein, once the true consequences of our Mesopotamian disaster sink into the national id, you'd better be prepard for some really dark shit.

By Anonymous Anonymous, at 2/05/2007 7:33 AM  

Sweet jehova! Let's not go overboard here. I think Anonymous was right when he said the companies thought it was safer to go with violence over sex. Sex get's you fined by the FCC. The violence in these comercials was the equivalent of Wile E. Coyote getting an anvil to the head. As another poster said, the tolerance for violence in this country is very high, particulary of the sort on display Sunday (during a violent sporting event). Make those ads realistic, showing the physical aftermath of said violence and you'd probably have several million poeple crying out with you.

By Anonymous Anonymous, at 2/05/2007 8:20 AM  

Talk about much ado about absolutely nothing...

By Anonymous Grokenstein, at 2/05/2007 8:56 AM  

I wonder what the humans who work at GM think of the GM ad. I wonder what those former GM employees who were let go, I wonder how they feel about this commercial. How apropos of GM to humanize a machine, while simultaneously de-humanizing the humans who work there.

By Blogger Paige, at 2/05/2007 9:18 AM  

...I don't know if others noticed this, but Halloween last year seemed to be more bizarre and ghoulish than ever.

It's the Abu-Graibization of American Culture.

By Anonymous Anonymous, at 2/05/2007 9:24 AM  

I think it's even bigger than the SuperBowl - have you noticed how many horror movies have come out in the past couple years? I have and wondered what that said about current cultural attitudes. Then I saw an article about the "monster movies" of the 1940's (or 1950's), and how psychologists believe those movies to be a reflection of the cultural anxiety regarding WWII and/or the Cold War.

So it sounds to me like the SuperBowl ads are really more of a continuation of that cultural reflection that we see around us now, in the currently excessive proliferation of horror movies.
- Wendy

By Anonymous Anonymous, at 2/05/2007 9:28 AM  

Yawn. All ads are lies. Why expect some indicative truth from the Stupor Bowl ads? Although, I think there are many of our fine upstanding patriot citizens who would really smack someone with a rock for a bitter watery Bud...:-0

By Blogger Jeremiad screamer, at 2/05/2007 10:06 AM  

I think the violence is a substitution for sexual content. The U.S. is so hyper-sensitive about nudity & sex, so if you can't show that, then violence is it's replacement. People freaked out when Janet's boob popped out, but it's perfectly OK to watch people being beaten up or things blow up. Just goes to show how backasswards this country has become. Our christian values at work...

By Blogger Mizz M, at 2/05/2007 10:22 AM  

Forget the beer ads... the things that were dripping with hate and confrontation were the ads for upcoming cop shows. And those are hour-long prime time doses of the stuff!


By Anonymous Anonymous, at 2/05/2007 11:26 AM  

Good compendium. There was something bothering me about those ads as they ticked by - thanks for summing it all up.

Oh, and one more for the list, let's not forget the homophobic and vaguely vioent Snickers ad (currently being addressed & discussed over at

Cheers -

By Anonymous Anonymous, at 2/05/2007 12:26 PM  

The CareerBuilder ads certainly tipped their hat to Gilliam, but there was something else going on there too. The CPA plays on the idea of a job for life, a secure workplace where things stay the same. The Survivor/Lost thing for CareerBuilder suggests something else: the law of the jungle applies.

(In a semi-related tangent, it looks like How I Met Your Mother, trailed during the game, is taking inspiration from 'No Hiding Place'.)

By Blogger pseudonymous in NC, at 2/05/2007 12:33 PM  

To me the violence of the ads wasn't nearly as overt as the, well, comprehensive suckitude of the ads.

The Letterman-Oprah promo was by far the best. The K-Fed ad was funny. Goulet made me chuckle. Everything else was just plain lame.

By Blogger Doug, at 2/05/2007 12:50 PM  

Talk about much ado about absolutely nothing...

Wrong, Grokenstein. If it meant *absolutely* nothing, hundreds of millions of dollars wouldn't be spent on this shit. It's open to question what, exactly, it does mean, which is the point of this post (thanks for it, BTW). But it's moronic to think it means 'absolutely nothing'. For that matter, NOTHING means absolutely nothing.

By Blogger jonnybutter, at 2/05/2007 2:21 PM  

Bush is just a symptom of a sick society. Sadly, the disease is spreading...

By Blogger gandhi, at 2/05/2007 3:22 PM  

Everything was OK for the robot when it woke up, except for still working for GM.
...which clearly makes the entire thing some sort of fantasy. ^_^;;

By Anonymous Dara, at 2/05/2007 7:29 PM  

well for those that say it is just cartoon violence - i think that is the worst kind... violence free of grown up analysis of consequences... the sort that makes young men laugh until they have to deal with the consequences in real life... sad and pathetic

By Anonymous Anonymous, at 2/05/2007 11:34 PM  

This is the stupidity of 'edgy' advertising. Especially at the Super Bowl, where the companies are less interested in effective selling than showing how hip they are--really, of course, how hip their agencies are.
Happy, pretty, sexy ads are hopeless. Thst's what everybody does every day. There has been in recent years, three ways to be edgy: 1) monstrously elaborate--which has gotten too easy digitally; 2) Funny--which always works; 3) Nasty.
Nasty is always easier than funny.
The Snickers thing does weird me out: why are they positioning a candy bar to be edgy and hip? They're pitching Snickers like beer.

By Anonymous pbg, at 2/06/2007 8:32 AM  

I thought the GTA Coke ad was hilarious. I thought it might be an ad for GTA 4 (coming out this October) for the first few seconds, and I was shocked they were actually showing gameplay on national TV. And then it's all heroic Coke, bunnies, flowers, and sunshine. Our long national nightmare is over. You can go shopping again.

By Blogger Dan Lewis, at 2/06/2007 10:31 AM  

Umm...why are we all so shocked at VIOLENCE IN THE MIDDLE OF A FOOTBALL GAME?
Finally the commercials match the sport.

By Anonymous doug r, at 2/09/2007 7:01 AM  

If you want to know more about the Mars family, the people behind Snickers, diabetes, and childhood obesity in the USA, as well as slave labor in third world count ires, you should read this pair of books. I know these people personally, and they're monsters. These are the books they DON'T want you to see...The Emperors of Chocolate: Inside the Secret World of Hershey and Mars, by Joël Glenn AND Crisis in Candyland: Melting The Chocolate Shell of the Mars Family Empire by Jan Pottker

By Anonymous Anonymous, at 2/13/2007 1:26 PM  

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