Sex and Circuses–Pop Paganism at the Super Bowl

Genius in advertising connects what’s hot in culture with perennial human desires.  That’s why we are fascinated with the Super Bowl ads, because they appeal to who we are whether we like it or not.  The imagery of the Super Bowl is wonderfully revealing.  It would also be deeply depressing if it weren’t for the prophylactic padding–those giants aren’t actually killing each other—and the ad’s humor.  We aren’t supposed to take any of this seriously, and I won’t to any great degree, although it’s worth a thought or two as a snapshot of the culture.

The game was one of the best in the Super Bowl’s history, with the Giants prevailing over the Patriots 21 -17.  This should put to rest forever, according to Al Michaels and Cris Collingsworth, whether Eli Manning is truly an elite quarterback, as he once again led the winning come-from-behind 4th quarter drive.  He also did it slowly enough that Tom Brady didn’t get his hands on the football with enough time to counter.

I was rooting for the Giants basically because I was rooting for Eli, who still looks like he’s about 12 years-old.  The problem with Eli—or what may be misleading his critics—is that he throws a ball that looks blimpish on long side-outs.  His passes sometimes  remind those with enough vintage of Joe Kapp’s waffling heaves.  There must be more zip on the ball than it appears, however, because the ball arrives before the defense, although you swear the back is going to jump the route the next time.  Doesn’t happen.  Eli is good.

The game was also a closely fought contest—a war.  That’s the way we say it.  That’s the way we take it.  The physical mayhem of the NFL substitutes in America for the gladiatorial contests and bear-baiting of past ages, which is a decent trade-off, after all.  Our sports heroes even enjoy the kind of glory reserved in the past for warriors.  At the presentation ceremony the Giants touched or kissed the Super Bowl trophy as if it had become their talisman, as indeed it has, since they will be remembered by millions.

Whoever staged Madonna’s half-time show picked up on the pop paganism of the event and introduced Madge as Cleopatra off to see Caesar or Mark Antony on her barque.  There were even pom pom girls in outfits first introduced for chariot races.   The pagan imagery gave way to a Gospel choir, signing a hymn, “Like A Prayer,” to romance.  But the real religion was reserved for the end, where Madonna underwent her apotheosis, disappearing into the heavens (or the underwold) in a puff of smoke.  From Cleopatra to immortality in a saucy 15 minutes!

But back to the ads.  Sex sells and the problem is to associate one’s product with sex in an unexpected way.  Or do so with such style and effectiveness that mouths are left agape—at least the male ones.  The Brazilian super model, Adriana Lima, did this for Teleflora, with a straight-forward pitch that Valentine’s Day is a quid pro quo proposition.  Give to get.

Conceptually, Fiat went well beyond in their use of sex.  They didn’t merely associate their Fiat Abarth model with sex but equated the two.  A regular Joe finds himself staring at a hot Italian woman in a black dress with red trimming, who then proceeds to berate him in the most seductive way.  He’s puckering for a smooch when he realizes he’s bending over to lay a smacker on a Fiat.  That’s quite a trick.  Woman equals car.  Car equals woman.  It’s one thing to sexualize a car but truly a feat to car-ize a woman.

The attraction of sex is obvious, of course, but acquisition as a means of dominating others is a more subtle motivation to capture.  Jerry Seinfeld and crew used this masterfully in their ad for Acura’s new MSX sport car.  Jerry is bugged because he’s not going to be the first to take delivery on a new MSX.  He tries to bribe the buyer ahead of him with every imaginable inducement, the Soup Nazi, the last living Munchkin, a new boat, an E.T., a zip-line network through New York’s skyscrapers—only to be outbid at the last by Jay Leno’s flying squirrel jet pack.  In a postscript Seinfeld’s avarice turns into the desire for revenge, as Seinfeld curses Leno.

It’s only an ad but it taps into what Rene Girard calls the power of mimetic acquisition—we want things purely because others have them.  The violence this inspires causes us to persecute scapegoats, as we seek revenge against weaker targets.  Much of Girard’s theory is there in this MSX spot.

Ninety percent of the ads showed human nature on display in its lust, avarice, and envy.  There was an interesting minority report, though, in the ads that took up America’s disquiet and what to do about it.  GE featured its workers in its turbine and appliance factories, pitching the power of association—of working together—to do significant things.  Even bring America back from its recent hard times.  This was echoed in Chrysler’s ad featuring Clint Eastwood, who said with teeth-gritting determination that just as Detroit has turned around the fortunes of the auto-industry, so could the rest of the country turn around its fortunes.  Dirty Harry told us it was only half-time in America, and we were going to roar out of the locker-room and astound the world again.

When we face real challenges, we don’t want to feel or be alone.  We do want to be alone, as the NFL’s fantasy game showed its character, when we have a bathtub full of gold coins.  But not when it comes to facing the commercial global challenge—or real life.  At these times, even the GE’s and Chrysler’s turn relational—even communitarian.  Or they want America and their workers to believe they do.

This is our culture; the fishbowl in which we swim.  It’s so much our habitat that we’d really prefer not to think about it and, in fact, rely on that culture’s media power to distract us from thinking about it.  How many people watched the Super Bowl, though?  This is what we got.  This is who we are.

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