As usual, the Super Bowl commercials are upstaging the game. Interest is so intense that it’s burst the bounds of the game telecast. The most ambitious commercials were released weeks early on YouTube, to garner responses and reviews and possibly go viral. This is “peak commercial-watching season,” according to Vox.
So far – I’m writing on the Friday before the game – the hit of this season seems to be Gillette’s “Toxic Masculinity” ad, which has aroused Americans to throw rocks at each other across our gaping cultural divide.
It’s an awkward little homily, perfect fodder for a Saturday Night Live parody, but it’s kicked up almost as much fuss as Nike’s Colin Kaepernick ad.
On YouTube, you can find an assault rifle-toting father lining up his pistol-packing kids to boast of their toxic masculinity, and a smug liberal declaring that “if you object to the Gillette ad, you’re part of the problem.”
The commercial has presumably done what Gillette wanted. Which was what, exactly?
Well, it got people talking about Gillette. When you’ve been selling razor blades for decades, it takes a lot to make people talk about you. And if you have a dull slogan like “The Best a Man Can Get,” this commercial gives it a fresh twist.
But there’s more going on here than selling product. The corporation and its ad agency are earnestly attempting to reshape our values and change our behavior.
This is what’s making people angry, I think. Ordinarily, commercials are trying to catch our attention and elicit some money from us. So we expect deference from them. When an advertiser drops the humble act and scolds us, we feel as offended as if a panhandler on Delmar criticized our choice of jacket.
Once in a while, a commercial does succeed in changing attitudes. The most famous Super Bowl ad of all time is Apple’s 1984 commercial. The arrival of George Orwell’s dreaded year coincided with the introduction of the personal computer, and Apple took advantage of the coincidence to produce an ad in which a bold female athlete arose from the faceless masses to challenge Big Brother.
Computers, which until then had been considered the dehumanizing and regimenting tools of dictators and corporations, became the instruments of individuality, creativity and rebellion. A new age began.
Now that Putin has used the internet to meddle with our election, we realize that we were right the first time. Computers are the tools of dictators.
Corporations too find them useful. Like the telescreens of Orwell’s novel, computers are two-way. As you watch them, they watch you.
This is helping corporations solve the biggest problem with television advertising. In order to reach the few consumers who may buy their products, they have to waste millions broadcasting ads to people who aren’t interested. Online, they can spy on us and target their ads more efficiently.
We consumers resent this. Aside from the invasion of privacy, the best thing about commercials, from our point of view, is that advertisers are wasting money. They’re subsidizing the news and entertainment shows we enjoy. As advertisers narrow their focus, we fear we’re going to have to pay more for what they call “content.”
Of course, advertising has always made us pay for our pleasures, though not entirely in money. The steady bombardment of commercials we all endure has damaged us, though in a subtle way.
So subtle that people smart enough to know better don’t seem to see it. Matthew Weiner, creator of Mad Men, takes a benign view of advertising. He says it has no power to make you want a product.
He’s right, but doesn’t take the next step. Because commercials can’t make us want the product, they show us something we want very badly, and imply that we’ll get it if we buy the product. So resorts and airlines show us young people with trim, fit bodies frolicking on the beach. SUV makers show us their cars on spectacular mountain roads, with no other car in sight.
Drug ads are the most shameless. As the narrator reads the side effects warning, the images show not just health but life at its best: people with loving families, satisfying jobs, fun hobbies.
We flatter ourselves we’re too smart to fall for this, but commercials work on us below the level of conscious decision-making. So we buy the product and are disappointed. We fly to the resort, but we’re still fat. We buy the SUV, and we’re still stuck in traffic jams. We buy the drug for metastatic breast cancer, and we still have a five-year relative survival rate of 22 percent.
Commercials may not have created Americans’ chronic dissatisfaction, restlessness and reluctance to see and address our real problems, but they’ve made matters worse. That’s why I’m unimpressed when sanctimonious Gillette tells me how to behave.