SuperBowl Ads 2013: Same Stratifications, Different Day
First, a big thank you to those of you who followed me on twitter for my live analysis of the superbowl commercials. Being a football fan meant that my eyes couldn’t leave the screen at really any point but it was fun!
If you were following you know that most of my analysis didn’t need to dig that far to uncover that most of the commercials were aimed at roughly the same demographic that has been targeted the last few years: pathetic, White men. Although this year it did seem to be aimed at rather young, pathetic, White men. Much like the last time I wrote about superbowl commercials, the message is that even if you’re not one of the guys on the field there are still ways to be cool (and I do believe coolness = manliness). Audi was one of the most offensive with their young protagonist forcing himself on the pretty, and one can assume popular, girl at his high school prom after he gets brave while driving his father’s car. As I mentioned in my tweet, this promotes a culture in which men think of women as prizes that are attainable once they drive the right car, have the right job, or have the right amount of money. This “rape culture” thinks of women as objects to be obtained and men are encouraged to take what they “deserve.”
Volkswagen decided to define coolness by using one of the most cool stereotypes: laid back Jamaicans. In their commercial a young, White man is lazily rebelling against his rat race cubicle job by taking on a Jamaican accent (and the laid back attitude that goes with it) after buying his Volkswagen Beetle (???). Outside of the Asian man who gets a ride in the Beetle there is little diversity. The Jamaican way of life just seems so foreign, exotic if you will. Which is what makes that ad offensive as it promotes the idea that some cultures you can easily “put on” or “take off” as if they were winter coats, or summer flip flops I guess. But of course being White remains the neutral standard.
Other companies had similar themes of “buy this product and you too could be cool!” (Godaddy with their awkward kiss scene, Axe body spray letting the nerds know astronauts are cooler than hot guys on the beach, etc.) but one ad caught my eye for combining the “rape culture vibe” with the “minorities are cool” vibe. That was the ad for the Mercedes CLA (above). A young, White man is sitting at a cafe looking at a billboard featuring the new car when Willem Dafoe, playing Lucifer, offers him a deal for the car “and everything that comes with it.” The man then imagines what his life will be like with the new car. Of course, the first thing is a beautiful blonde; women are the prize for being the man with the cool car. There are more scenes including one in which the young, White man realizes that he can dance like Usher which, if you’ve ever seen Usher dance, is quite the feat. And this scene, while short, is an important one. Because this scene invites us to understand what is being said about race relations in the United States in 2013: Black men are cool, but White men have power. And while White men can borrow being cool, the opposite is not true: Black men cannot borrow power.
And to be honest, when you think about the segregation of the SuperBowl, it instantly becomes clear. I was proud to see that no fewer than three Black female singers graced the stage at the opening and at halftime (five if you count Kelly and Michelle), especially because the Superbowl prides itself on being such an American tradition. But at the same time it was hard not to notice that there were distinct spaces for different groups. Black men and women were on the field serving as entertainment. And given that a majority of the ads were directed at White men then it must follow that White men are the ones being entertained. They are the ones with financial power.
Now don’t get me wrong, I know these are not clean lines. There were plenty of men and women of color watching the game (hello….me!) but the companies that make these ads must get the most bang for their superbuck. Even when men of color were featured, women paid the price. Like when GoDaddy featured men from all over the world having the same great idea and their wives simply serving as the nags (and other women serving as the prizes for cashing in on the “big idea”). Ugh.
But at the same time, that’s why I have come to love the superbowl ads. While people tend to think of them as new and exciting, the amount of money at stake means that they cannot be entirely experimental. There must be some feeling of safety and for that, the ads rely on stereotypes and associations that are familiar to us. And that’s when we see what the most powerful people, the ones pulling the big company purse strings, really think of the rest of us. So is it really that surprising to see that White men are uncool but have power, Black men and women serve as entertainment, and White women serve as prized objects for the rich and powerful? If you see the world like I do, not really.