ISO: a Super Bowl 50 Hero
Then I saw when the Lamb broke one of the seven seals, and I heard one of the four living creatures saying as with a voice of thunder, “Come.” I looked, and behold, a white horse, and he who sat on it had a bow; and a crown was given to him, and he went out conquering and to conquer. - Revelation 6: 1-2
Where were the heroes of Super Bowl 50? Where was conqueror, seated atop his albino steed, monopolizing our hot brand takes and #social conversations? Out reveling with the similarly M.I.A. Carolina Panthers offense, it would seem.
For the first year in recent memory, the Super Bowl felt like it left us with a solid-enough supporting cast, but no true star. As America slowly whittles down from a dozen presidential candidates, national commercial characters presented a similar field: flawed heroes, subdued malice, organized chaos, and occasional brilliance. We saw all the archetypes during the Super Bowl this year.
If only Joseph Campbell were alive to see the myths laid out, the American ego on parade.
In automotive, two camps clashed. On one side of the field, the One-Note Charlies, bragging their friends’ ears off on the single cool feature that sold them on their Hyundai (GPS tracking!) or Honda (truck bed radio!) or Prius (great gas mileage!) or Kia (like cool socks!).
Elsewhere, more spokes-types emerged: the 20-year-veteran Pokemon trainers, the galloping purebred weiners looking for their Heinz matches (adopt don’t shop), the socially conscious water-savers for Colgate, the slightly-pained for Advil, the Nike re-enactors for Michelob Ultra.
Celebrities? Yes, of course. Drake is compliant and corporate in a smile-and-wink for rebellious net neutrality neutralizers T-Mobile. Alec Baldwin is compulsive and anal for Amazon’s no-touch Alexa. Liam Neesons plays the role of a future TV magician. And on, and on. The boldest move in Super Bowl advertising may now be paying actors who actually need the paycheck to get by.
Our medical heroes came to life this year not as surgeons or doctors but as an anthropomorphized pile of guts with a quivering anal sphincter for a mouth, a brawny, dull-witted fungus creme and the hint of bowel relief through on opioid haze: Xifaxin, Jublia and the OIC. The meek intestine, the fungal fighter and the stool beckoner for functional opioid addicts are an alright group of superheroes for our day. We get the gods we deserve.
We had small timers, like WeatherTech and Wix.com, forking over a large slice of their marketing pie for half a minute under the bright lights. And of course, standbys that you can set a watch to: blockbuster movies, fizzy beverages and sometimes (unsuccessfully) a combination of the two. But what we didn’t have, other than the Broncos: a clear winner. Even Helen Mirren, lady assassin from RED, couldn’t stop our party conversations with her frank, long-copy take on drunk driving for Budweiser. (See also.) It was an interesting change of angle for the big brewer, but we reckon Bud’s testosterone-packed ponies connected better with the unwashed masses.
This is football after all: bold and brash, the epicenter of physical compromise in pursuit of riches, where we must abjure good health, sense, taste, foot care and free tax preparation. Even the principled Beastie Boys were willing to ignore departed friend MCA's last will and testament and license "No Sleep 'til Brooklyn" for Michael Bay's Ninja Turtles sequel commercial. In a world gone mad, people need a hero they can believe in, complete with bold claims and medical drama and slapstick. Last night we almost missed the days of Bud Light’s crotch punches, now gone in favor of strident, un-funny things, like elections. Where did the reliable string of one-liner :30s go? What’s an <insert relevant consumer segmentation here> gotta do for a cheap laugh?
At Super Bowl 50, few brands took a shot for a legitimate spit-taker to match the penny ante we’re punished with every day — even given the free-for-all Purge-style pass the American public gives them for one night in February.
The weird national freak show had a few moments, though. Mountain Dew’s Puppymonkeybaby was the first to suck the room into a tractor beam of oddity. We saw children mesmerized, while parents glanced back and forth to the television and their children, considering them, casting them as small mutants themselves. ‘Do I have a PuppyMmonkeybaby? Should I talk to my doctor about PMB?’
By the time it was over we had forgotten what varietal of high-fructose abomination spawned such a creature. But late in the fourth quarter, as the Panthers unveiled their last spasm of a drive, on review of all the notable ads, a twelve-year-old in our group recited the specifics as if seared into his still-forming mind, a potion to accelerate his trip to adulthood. Advertising works, after all.
The halftime color scheme was more Mountain Dew Mexican Carnival than Summer of Love, but homage was paid to the original Epicenter of Weird by the Bay (Bey?) via intrusion of shoddy into the glamour cascade by everyone’s favorite Mexican-inspired quick-serve restaurant. Taco Bell launched its own culinary Puppy Monkey Baby with the Quesalupa (seriously guys can we come to these naming sessions?) and employed a great piece of trickery to reinforce the middling, meme-ish first-quarter anthem.
Nestled in the cheap seats, the set of local-run advertisements before halftime, Taco Bell had a sleeper cell, an ad for a local service that transformed into a cheesy Quesalupa sneak attack. In Oregon, it was Mr. Appliance. In Minnesota, Fancy Ray. Local advertising misfits in five US markets grabbed viewers with their idiosyncratic low-fidelity ads, cashing in on the ‘we can’t believe this idiot spent money to run this’ factor. And then as these caterpillars metamorphosed into a Taco-Bell-branded cheesy butterfly of a concept, they almost compelled us to march down to the border and pay the man his Quesalupa Tax for evading our Consumer Bullshit Detector.
On the second screen, Squarespace employed a theoretically laudable strategy: take popular (and often funny!) sketch comedians Key & Peele and have them do an in-character riff track on the actual game, that you can tune in to during while it’s going on.
Alas, the first screen held onto its tenuous grasp, with quivering colons and Chris Martin and even a football contest featuring the ugly truth of what wins: defense. We checked in on Key & Peele a few times; after their spot aired the audience livestreaming peaked at around 25k viewers, then down to 13k, then steadily declining the rest of the game, until all the guests went home, and surely, a few laptops, still open, tab buried, on mute stood watch over their postgame farewell. Was it worth it? It doesn’t feel like it.
Perhaps after a few small successes, the attention pendulum has swung back. Isn’t the point of the Super Bowl that we’re all witnesses to this spectacle laid out before us, unleashing zingers and baring our cynicism and wielding our PhD in consumerism until the bitter end, when we all get the big reveal, the final Hail Mary we can believe in?
If, like many, you watch for the commercials, this year you got your Hail Mary good and hard. The Immaculate Pitch this year was at very last second, when a new chapter was written by winning quarterback Peyton Manning, the forever-compliant Brand Spokesman who’s always been a willing participant in lending his voice to the highest bidder.
Instead of telling America he was going to Disneyland, the old warhorse planted a smacker on pizza magnate Papa John and told us a few times he’s gonna go drink a bunch of Budweisers. Good ol’ Peyton happens to own a couple of Bud distributors, and 21 Denver-area Papa John's franchises, and as a for-sure, first-ballot Pitchman-Hall-of-Famer, Manning knows how important word-of-mouth is for sales.
Bud was quick to promise it didn’t pay for the plug, of course, because active players get slapped by the league for endorsing alcohol, but the NFL fining Manning now would be the biggest Super Bowl shocker of them all. Heck, the league's probably in awe of his homespun huckstership.
All in all, it’s the same as it ever was: we shine our bright light and hold up our magnifying glasses and we are mostly disappointed -- a game and its commercials, never quite living up to our inflated expectations. Meanwhile, inside the cheap-beer-drenched Broncos’ locker room (Bud sent 50 celebratory cases for the ~$3m of free publicity) and living rooms across the country, the great white horse of consumerism, mane aflame with glory, rides on into the night.