The most controversial ad that appeared this Super Bowl Sunday was for Dodge Ram, its crassitude suggesting the limits of the corporate benevolence frequently promoted during many commercial breaks this year. The car company chose to juxtapose an excerpt from a Martin Luther King, Jr., sermon, titled “The Drum Major Instinct,” against a montage honoring family values, rugged masculinity, and knee-jerk nationalism. Brazenly obtuse, the commercial was, in tone, like a poster for Sleepy’s mattresses appropriating the “I Have a Dream” speech. By morning, a caustic remix had appeared on YouTube, layering King’s sharp critiques of advertising and consumer culture over Dodge’s imagery. Score one for the Internet.
The Super Bowl ad-watcher also noted a distinct lack of critters this year. The animal-themed Super Bowl commercial is a pleasant genre unto itself. A litter of puppies, or a madness of marmots, or a solitary hedgehog will deliver an urgent message about corn chips or data plans or hatchbacks, and it will be funny and cute. Even the Budweiser Clydesdales remained in the stable, as Anheuser-Busch, like a handful of other advertisers, instead publicized its honorable deeds.
In the Bud spot, a brewery manager’s phone rings at 3:42 A.M. He casts a protective glance at his stirring wife, splashes water on his face, and heads into work as a cover of “Stand by Me” coats a clean, industrial scene. With the push of a button, his production line switches from spewing beer into cans labelled “America” to packaging water destined for natural-disaster zones. Elsewhere, Matt Damon advised the viewer to purchase a Stella Artois stemmed glass, which, with a straight face, he identified as a “chalice,” to support a clean-water initiative in the developing world. I worry that these ads are harbingers of a global corporate state where all emergency services and public works will be underwritten by Bud Light Lime-a-Rita.
Though the new way to sell beer is to make ads inviting jokes about how watery the beer you sell is, the classic rules of selling soda pop still apply. The big Coca-Cola ad was a sun-glazed celebration of pluralism. The spot opens onto a game of Spin the Bottle. The bottle comes to rest pointing at a young man. The commercial shows the viewer’s optimism for his kiss, while actively discouraging any wondering about the gender of the person he’s kissing. We listen as the voice-over spills with a catalogue of preferred pronouns: “There’s a Coke for he and she and her and me . . .”
The Coke commercial represents the natural progression of a brand identity that began with the famous 1971 ad “Hilltop,” with its pluralistic choir chiming “Buy the World a Coke.” Coca-Cola’s long heritage of making noise about bringing people together gives it an edge over the many other Super Bowl advertisers that profess related values. This year’s ad was the kind of Coke ad to remind you of Andy Warhol’s praise for the cola as a great American beverage. In “The Philosophy of Andy Warhol,” the artist wrote, “You can be watching TV and see Coca-Cola, and you know that the President drinks Coke, Liz Taylor drinks Coke, and just think, you can drink Coke, too. A Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking.”
The most distinct ad had to be the one for Diet Coke, directed by Paul Feig, with the aid of an actress enjoying a slender can of a new fruit flavor called Twisted Mango. The wardrobe designers were clearly emulating the dress sense of Greta Gerwig. Sometimes an ad is simply a cultural weather report.
There was also a telling symmetry between a first-quarter ad for Sprint and a fourth-quarter ad for Amazon Alexa. In the former, Sprint earns the business of a roboticist after he is mocked by his own android, and her lab full of bullying A.I. friends, for having a Verizon plan. The Alexa ad opens as a burlesque of a disaster film. Alexa, the virtual assistant, has lost her voice, and Jeff Bezos is reassured by his underlings that they’ve got good a good fix. Alexa is replaced, in the ad, by pop personalities, including the celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay, who berates a customer for his ignorance of how to make a grilled cheese, and the hip-hop phenom Cardi B, who cackles at an astronomy problem posed by a boy doing his homework: “How far is Mars? How am I supposed to know? I never been there.” Each ad cheerfully channels an anxiety about the cruelty of talking machines. Maybe the Super Bowl was short on animals this year because we humans are fretting a bit about our fitness as pets.