Many watch the Super Bowl just for the ads. And while the game of football (mostly) stays the same over the years, it’s the ads that—if you look past the bikinis and Bud Lite—offer glimpses of America’s mood, anxieties, and soul.
There’s a long tradition, on both the left and right, of treating advertising as top-down “propaganda”—as, for instance, Madison Ave.’s attempt to inspire overconsumption through (subliminal) sexual imagery or promote miscegenation (as did this year’s mawkish Cheerios spot). Though this type of analysis gets at a kernel of truth, the Super Bowl ads have also revealed a great deal about Americans’ collective conception (or rather fantasy) of themselves.
In asserting that “1984 Won’t Be Like 1984, Apple Computer displayed a blonde rebel (dressed in the mode of the ’80s jogging fad), who triumphed over the forces of totalitarian conformity (that is to say, IBM). The generation that loved this ad—that bought a Mac as a signal of being a plucky underdog—failed to see that the ultimate conformity is the lie of “self-expression,” “individualism,” and “creativity,” through which so much of postmodern capitalism functions. (Full disclosure: I’ve never owned a non-Apple computer.)
In 2012, Chrysler reassured a depressed population that it was only “Half-time in America,” and that another “American Century” (of guaranteed employment and benefits) was right around the corner. Just wait.
If there was a theme to the ads of Super Bowl XLVIII, it was promoting multiculturalism, multiracialism, and mass immigration—or, to be more exact, making these things seem normal, all-American, and even “homey.”
The Coca-Cola Corporation once advertised its beverage as part of the “friendship of the peoples,” in which the world’s races and cultures—which were, it should be added, distinct and intact—would engage in peaceful coexistence.
In 2014, everyone in the world now lives in America. They took with them some randoms shards of their homelands (bits of language and clothing), but they all mix together happily, drinking high-fructose corn syrup.
Dim-witted conservatives have, predictably, claimed that this ad was “un-American”—as if it weren’t a consequence of defining a nation on a universalist liberal “creed” and as the Last Best Hope for mankind.
It’s worth noting that ever since 1984, Apple has stuck with its “Think Different (Just Like Everyone Else)” mantra for its most memorable commercials. But last fall, it presented something akin to this year’s Coke spot: advertising the iPhone 5C—a down-market product (at least for Apple)—the company saw every human being on earth as some kind of semi-retarded, mixed-race hipster.
The ad that generated the most intense response was the aforementioned depiction of quaint race-mixing by General Mills. Here, with the soft-lighting and washed-out colors of every Cheerios commercial of the past 40 years, a Black man and his pregnant White wife inform their hybrid (though effectively Black) daughter that a new one is on the way.
The response to this spot fits a now-familiar pattern: Liberals accuse conservatives of being racist, and then conservatives counter that liberals are the true racists. In this case, an MSNBC staffer speculated, preemptively, that conservatives would detest such a frank depiction of miscegenation. Conservatives then reacted by tweeting about their mixed-race families.
Here, we see a meeting of both top-down propaganda and idealized self-conception. As Michael McGregor notes, “[W]hite paternalism will always be the way to sell multiracialism to conservatives.” In other words, the kind of in-your-face race-mixing that made its way into Hollywood films in the 1970s is merely sexual and deviant, and thus too easily resisted. (Take, for instance, Roger Moore’s bizarre “romance” with Rosie Carver in 1973’s Live and Let Die.)
The ultimate propaganda is when something groundbreaking or catastrophic is imagined as normal; it’s when you’re told that everything’s going to be all right, everything’s going to be all right. . . In this way, last Sunday’s Cheerios commercial is a deeply “conservative” fantasy, in that the Black male lead becomes a non-threatening “beta,” who has suburban tastes and is devoted to”family values.” It is Black men, more than Whites, whose real identity is being torn from them or erased.
We must also ask a painful question: Is a large segment of self-described “conservative Christians” closer to internalizing multi-racialism than they are to adopting European identity?
Jeezus . . . somebody pass me the Bud Lite!