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Edward Carney

Edward Carney
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I believe that personal and social change must sometimes come from reaching a breaking point, where the weight of awareness, numbers, or emotion can no longer be sustained by the status quo. Here I present some of the breaking points I'm looking forward to.

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Salon.com
FEBRUARY 6, 2012 7:56PM

Super Bowl Ads

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Last night’s Super Bowl provided a nice opportunity for me to visit with family and watch the game, but I must admit that the better share of my motivation was to watch the commercials and keep a critical eye upon them. Despite that, when I made my way to my father’s house, I forgot to take along my notebook, so any comments that I have to make will have to be by memory. I suppose that’s appropriate, considering the intended roles of advertising. Also, I like to assess both the good and the bad, so I think I’ll pair my reflections so that I give one bit of praise and one bit of criticism on the same topic.

The Cola Wars

Pepsi was one of the first companies to run an ad once the game had started, and its style was eminently recognizable from previous years. There seems to be no plan behind high-profile Pepsi advertisements other than to pour money into acquiring odd collections of whatever celebrity guest stars they can get to sign a contract, and then piling them on top of one another in some display of spectacle without substance, in hopes that every member of the audience will see somebody they recognize well enough to stare at for up to sixty seconds.

I wondered aloud on seeing last night’s Elton John-centered absurdity, is this strategy really working for them? I guess either Pepsi has to reach a breaking point in its patience with its advertising agency, or I’ve got to reach a breaking point in my expectations of the television audience. It would be sad to think that the modern consumer brain runs on nothing but facial-recognition. I think they’re still capable of reflecting, thinking rationally, and grasping themes.

Of course, on that latter point, I suppose Pepsi’s advertisers are in agreement, as they did try to build some reference to the Zeitgeist into the bizarre scene that they crafted for their commercial. It concludes (at least prior to Flavor Flav putting his uniquely discomforting punctuation mark on it) with Melanie Amaro refusing King Elton John’s begrudging offer of “Pepsi for you,” and insisting instead, “Pepsi for all.”

It is arguably clever to try to tap into far-reaching frustrations over upper-class greed, but hinting at a socio-economic revolution doesn’t really seem to serve any purpose in a Pepsi commercial. It’s not as though Pepsi can somehow be viewed as a commodity that is cruelly withheld from the poor. It’s just a carbonated soft drink, and it’s already familiar to all of us, rich and poor – poor especially. Adding the class conflict dimension to a Pepsi commercial just adds another level to the acid nightmare that makes up their advertising.

On the other hand, Coca-Cola advertisements have been genuinely satisfying for years. This year in particular, their Super Bowl spots clearly aimed for continuity while Pepsi continued to deliberately eschew just that. Rather than focusing their expenditures on celebrity endorsements, Coca-Cola widely spread out two or three million dollars among a few timeslots throughout the event, so as to retain the audience’s attention with a series of installments of the same campaign, as opposed to just grapping the audience’s attention with one swift, bewildering slap in the face.

And Coca-Cola’s continuity curves around a tagline, and thus an overall theme, that is simple and effective: open happiness. That is precisely the sort of concept one should seek to attach to a soft drink. It should conjure the idea of refreshment, or leisure, or camaraderie, or enjoyment. And Coca-Cola makes a plain declaration of enjoyment, and then backs it up by making their Polar Bear commercials thoroughly enjoyable.

Nostalgia

If there’s one unique social trend amongst my generation, it is an unprecedented obsession with nostalgia. Budweiser’s ads utilized this fact delicately and artistically, while Samsung did so in a clumsy way that highlighted the worst aspects of our delight at remembering the past.

Budweiser is an absolute champion among Super Bowl advertisers, and a pair of their commercials this year were quite ambitions in connecting their brand to a long and romanticized past. First, their Clydesdale commercial depicted the end of Prohibition, and thus both allowed a young audience’s imagination to recede into an historical moment and connected that imagery to a larger theme of the end of hard times, which was no doubt expected to resonate with people throughout the country in the midst of this persistently difficult economy. Indeed, the same basic concept was repeated frequently by the American car companies and others.

Later in the game, Budweiser ran another commercial that effectively continued from where the Prohibition spot left off, tracing the presence of their brand throughout the twentieth century in America. It was a distinctly ambitious advertisement, and it theoretically made that impulse towards nostalgia accessible to everyone between the ages of twenty-one and seventy. I don’t know whether it was among the most effective commercials of the game, but it was certainly among the most affective. No one who was paying attention would have failed to find something that they could relate to, either experientially or imaginatively.

Interestingly, Samsung went in quite the opposite direction, which may in fact be appropriate given that their target demographic is certainly young, and comprised mostly of young urban professionals or current students, for whom cutting edge technology is of paramount importance, but for whom nostalgia is as strong a pull as it is for anyone else.

I do not understand why the singer from the band The Darkness appeared in the middle of that commercial. And while I recognize that many people roughly my age probably responded to it, I don’t understand why that would be. The bizarre thing about the increasingly strong nostalgic tendency in American society is that it’s also increasingly close. Thus, Samsung saw fit to make the hook for their ad a rock song that was unreasonably popular for a while seven years ago – not recent enough to be at all fresh, but not old enough to be what you might call a blast from the past.

I’m not saying that it was a poor move; I’m just saying that I can’t comprehend the appeal. I’d rather there hadn’t been such a commercial to remind me of the irrationality of certain young social trends.

Sex Sells

I love the Fiat commercial all the more because I hated it for the first several seconds. As I watched it, I started wondering if there was something wrong with me, given that such male fantasies as it depicted just tend to confuse me. It made for another instance where I had to remind myself to divorce myself from the target audience and recognize that that sort of overblown sexuality does have an influence on many potential consumers. Nevertheless, it seemed to me that what I was watching was just ridiculously over-the-top. Then, lo and behold, the hilarious turn reveals that that was exactly the point. I’m guessing the advertisers read the study from about a year ago that indicated that men’s brains do indeed respond the same way to cars as they do to women. Even if one thinks that comparison is hyperbole, though, Fiat’s utilization of the parallel was hilarious. It may very well have been my favorite commercial of the night, though admittedly the competition was quite slim.

By contrast, the sex-focused ad campaign for Go Daddy wore thin years ago and it just keeps getting more obnoxious, so those were probably my least favorite commercials. If the company thinks that the suggestion of nudity is helping to sell their domain hosting, I think somebody should urge them towards the breaking point of realizing that the reason why their sales figures are good is that they have essentially no competition. The Super Bowl commercial could consist of nothing but fifteen seconds of their web address flashing on the screen and they would probably still get a spike in traffic. Pretending that there’s a naked woman off camera does nothing to sell the service. The men to whom it might appeal can imagine nudity without Go Daddy’s help, and probably already were.

Supernatural

Audi’s vampire party commercial came on early and was so satisfying I was worried I wouldn’t have room for anything else once it concluded. Headlights are an odd feature on which to focus your sales pitch, but it probably is the sort of arcane status symbol that purchasers of high-end car brands would want to be aware of.

The entire structure of the commercial parallels that focus on – if I may call it this without sound pejorative – snobbishness. It grabs the attention of anyone who is aware of current popular culture, and lets them wonder what direction it’s going. I feel as though when vampires are put on screen in front of a diverse audience, one portion of people lean in and hope people start fucking, and the rest of us lean in and hope that people get massacred. It was those of us who are completely annoyed by the modern vampire obsession who were satisfied, in part because it came at the expense of the rest. Right now, someone who feels very good about himself because of both his taste in literature and his taste in consumer goods is seriously considering purchasing an Audi.

On the bad side of usage of the supernatural in Super Bowl commercials, there’s Cars.com. I appreciate the shades of John Carpenter’s The Thing, but really, what the hell were they thinking? “Haunting” is not necessarily a negative label. You can make your message haunt your audience in a good way. This was not an example of that.

I think the above constitute a pretty good cross-sample of last night’s advertisements. I hope this is far more thought than the rest of you put into it. After all, very few of the ads were especially impressive this year, whereas the actual game was terrific. Nevertheless, it is more fun to analyze social trends and consumer manipulation than offensive rushing statistics.

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