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Ad Bowl XLIII

posted: 2.13.09 by Jack Solomon

The fact that I am devoting this blog entry to a semiotic analysis of the advertising for Super Bowl XLIII is, itself, probably the most striking signifier of all to be found in such an analysis, signifying, as James Twitchell has put it, that we are indeed an “ad culture,” a society wherein advertising informs our common discourse and has become something of an art form. The fact that the Super Bowl’s ads now probably get more attention than the game, with viewers invited to vote on their favorites, and that even The New York Times includes in its pages a day-after Super Bowl ad review, provides more evidence of the hold that advertising has on our cultural consciousness. Finally, the fact I am assuming here that a good many of you will recognize the particular ads that I mean to analyze (my students did) is significant.

All of this points to one of the underlying mythologies of our culture, our status as a consumer society whereby consumption, and the means by which it is stimulated, constitute one of the dominant forms of our self-expression.

A review of the ads themselves (all 62 of them—don’t worry, I’m not even going to try to look at all of them) reveals an eclectic group of commercials extending from the sentimental (you just know that in Budweiser’s Clydesdale/Circus Horse romance ad the horses are going to live happily ever after) to the sadistic (the Doritos “Crystal Ball” ad which concludes with a man taking a direct shot to the groin from a snow globe)—a diversity that forbids any simple one-size-fits-all interpretation of them all. For its part, The New York Times does note that creativity was strikingly absent from the ads this time around, and that the various ad agencies simply replayed old strategies from Super Bowls past. The Times’ suggested interpretation for the cause of this timidity—that everyone is fearful of taking any creative chances in these economically difficult times—is as good as any, and even provides a useful starting point for an analysis of a particularly striking group of ads, to which I will limit this blog entry.

These ads include a spot for CareerBuilder.Com (“Tips”), Budweiser (“Meeting”), Monster (“Need a new job?”), Teleflora (“Talking Flowers”), Hyundai (“Angry Boss”), and the Doritos ad already noted (“Crystal Ball”). (I am taking the ad “names” from hulu.com, where you can find all 62 ads along with quantitative analyses of their relative popularity). What all of these ads have in common is their business office related thematics, with each one including an office setting. By piggybacking on the success of the situation comedy The Office (which itself is an American clone of the British comedy The Office), these ads from Ad Bowl XLIII reinforce the Times’ accusation of nervousness on the part of the ad agencies: nothing succeeds like success, and, taking no chances, these ads all seek to draw from their already proven mass media brethren a popularity that they do not dare to achieve on their own.

There is, of course, a good deal more to the matter. For when we look at the office-themed ads and office-themed sitcoms together, associated in a similar system of cultural signifiers, we can find indicators of a growing desperation on the part of America’s white-collar workforce. That is, both the ads and the sitcoms feature horrible working conditions in which both bosses and coworkers alike are cretinous fools, with only one or two characters excepted so that the audience can have someone with whom to identify. For example, in CareerBuilder’s “Tips,” one of the figures is a caricature of a nerdy nincompoop wearing nothing but a Speedo bathing suit as he talks on the phone in the cubicle next to “yours.” Others include a supervisor who passes by only to insult a cubicled wage slave, and images of desperately unhappy workers who need another job predominate in this single spot. In Monster’s “Need a new job?” the boss sits in a luxuriously appointed office with a moose head mounted behind and above his desk, while at the other side of the wall an office worker sits with the rest of the moose’s body between him and his computer (he has to press between the hind legs of the moose to get to his desk). In Teleflora’s “Talking Flowers” a friendly enough office group congratulates a young woman on the box of flowers that she has been sent, but when the flowers start trash talking her the workers all scatter except for one nerd whose comfort the insulted woman definitely neither wants nor needs. In Budweiser’s “Meeting,” an office worker is literally thrown out of a multistory office building when he suggests that eliminating Bud Lite at meetings would help cut corporate costs, and in Hyundai’s “Angry Boss” we see screaming bosses from Japan and Germany—the one coded as a Tojo-like tyrant, the other as a Nazi Storm Trooper—furious CEOs terrorizing their managers. Finally, in Doritos’ “Crystal Ball,” a nerdy office worker smashes the front of the snack machine by throwing a snow globe at it, and is followed by a coworker who throws the globe himself only to hit his boss in the groin.

All of the ads, of course, are meant to be funny, a sort of whistling in the dark for America’s office workers, who presumably take comfort in seeing their sufferings comically presented. But there is an ironic contradiction, especially in the ads by CareerBuilder and Monster that are aimed at viewers who are looking for new jobs. Because the message of the office-themed ads when taken as a group, as well as the office-themed TV shows they are imitating, is that office life is universally horrible. CareerBuilder and Monster comically show why someone would want another job, but the whole message is that no such jobs can be found. All you can do is laugh at your own misery.

Which may be the most significant semiotic point of all here: Laughter and entertainment are not good motivators for taking action against the slings and arrows of outrageous capitalism. (Think about it: what gets you moving, anger at injustice, or laughter at the ridiculous?) By keeping its white-collar victims laughing, capitalism, in effect, keeps them docile. Who do you think wins? The boss will still get the paneled walls and the mounted moose head. The office worker will still get the moose’s rear end.

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Categories: Popular Culture, Semiotics
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2 Responses to “Ad Bowl XLIII”

  1. Laurence Singerman Says:

    Professor Solomon’s right: Capitalism is bad. When can we see commercials showing the happy inhabitants of a state owned factory, churning out mediocrity, with no incentive to improve their lot in life? Actually, the fed’s takeover of the auto industry will result in exactly that, if it has not been achieved already due to aggressive unions and weak management. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to become the guy with the moosehead’s side of the office. In fact, when I get there, I will make a point of it to have the second half removed, after having the meat harvested.

  2. Jack Solomon Says:

    Mr. Singerman’s response to my blog is highly significant in many ways. Most significant is its reflection of the almost universal assumption that anyone who points out the cruelties within capitalism must be a communist. This kind of binary either/or thinking renders critical thinking on social problems highly difficult. There was a period in history in which western governments tried out solutions that were not so binary in approach, within which capitalist economic systems were preserved under state regulation. The United States attempted such a solution with some success, but that system began to be undermined in the Reagan years, which soon resulted in the disappearance of the Savings and Loan industry. Further deregulation within the past decade has severely threatened the banking system. So long as patterns of binary thinking guide our ways of thinking, such repetitions of history are virtually inevitable.