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Watching for the commercials

I read recently that, in the past ten years, the Super Bowl's various sponsors have paid, in total, about $1.85 billion for airtime during the big game. We don't know how much the companies have spent producing the commercials themselves, but we can assume that it's a lot, and indeed, the ads these days sport so many celebrity cameos and high-end special effects that one must conclude that, in most cases, one of the foremost intentions of the advertiser is to convey that a ton of cash has been dropped.

These companies must love it, I think, when we talk about how expensive it is to run a 30-second spot during the Super Bowl. The amount of money involved surely is one of the factors that has convinced us that, on Super Bowl Sunday, the TV commercials are a cultural event of significance comparable to that of the game itself - or maybe of greater significance, because a football game is, after all, just a meaningless clash between large muscular people, whereas the advertisements reflect the economic and cultural climate in which we live and therefore are much like art: they speak to us and of us.

They are, additionally, tributes to human creativity and, like all creative endeavors, offer us different ways of looking at the world: with a burst of humor, a touch of emotion, a shimmer of style. We know these ads are creative, again, mostly because of the money involved. With millions on the line, we can be certain that only the best and most imaginative filmmakers, copywriters, and art directors will get a shot here.

It's worth noting that nearly all of the products hawked during the Super Bowl are, from some perspective, "terrible" products: flavorless international macrobrews; processed, nutritionally void foods; sugary, caloric sodas; American cars. There's probably a pretty good shot that, when we die, one of the items I just listed will be at least partly to blame.

There is, I suppose, the widespread notion that, regardless of what we think of the products on display (which, after all, we're too smart to buy purely because the TV told us to), we can just appreciate the artistry that goes into big-budget advertising nowadays. On the other hand, it's hard to believe that, from a sales perspective, PepsiCo doesn't know what it's doing. Why would it spend all that dough if it couldn't "really" manipulate us?

Well, it wouldn't. Can art not serve ignoble purposes? Am I denying that advertisers are truly the creative geniuses of our time? In what way, exactly, does commercialism negate art?

Maybe it doesn't so much negate it as preempt it. Because their main objective is to get us to do something (i.e., to buy something we don't need), TV ads can speak only to our illogical selves, with broad jokes, corny sentiments, and childish rapture over shiny things. The best advertisers are the ones who can take simple notions - e.g., that scantily clad women are exciting or that driving fast is fun - and twist them with such cleverness and novelty that we don't realize that the basic terms in which they're communicating are degrading.

Television commercials are, in this way, really the opposite of art, whose goal is to reach a deeper, better part of us - and not to prey upon our anxieties or superficialities but to understand us and heal us.

This column is, I guess, the culmination of 13 or so years of hearing people say that they "mostly watch the Super Bowl for the commercials" and feeling that this, though a popular attitude, was in some way wrong - that we should enjoy ad-supported content, sure, but that to enjoy the experience of having enormous corporations attempt to sell us useless products so much as to become willing to sit through a four-hour TV program in which we'd otherwise have no interest must be some kind of sign of spiritual crisis. Indeed, the simple fact of so many people who don't actually care about football watching the Super Bowl, whatever their reason, seems a victory of hype over the individual.

This "I mostly watch for the commercials" line is, I think, usually said by people who believe that "football is stupid" - and maybe it is, but a lot more thought and even imagination are required to be entertained by a football game than to be shallowly delighted by a 30-second ad. And are the ads really that delightful, anyway? It seems to me that even the "funniest" of the commercials are typified by the false anarchy of constrained, purpose-driven absurdity, and that the most beautiful of them are coated in a sort of grossly covetous sheen, a way of seeing things that consists mostly of wanting them.

I'm rooting for the 49ers, by the way.

Tagged: Superbowl, Commercials