Ads and More!

The Annual Spectacle of the Super Bowl

A rabbi, a priest, an imam, and a Buddhist monk walk into a bar. Just kidding. They actually get into a Toyota truck, meet up with nuns at a football game, and enjoy interfaith sports fandom. “When we are free to move, anything is possible,” says the voiceover of this Toyota ad that aired during Super Bowl LII. While over 100 million Americans watched this much-hyped event, I suspect many anthropologists did not. I have no empirical proof, but in my quarter century in our discipline, the moral high ground of either boycotting or ignoring this exploitative spectacle is well confirmed. But, some among us had to watch, so this anthropologist dove in.

I tuned in for the ads, the halftime show, and the game (in that order), and I’m here to report on the first. As someone who has written extensively about diversity in advertising, I focused on how people of color were included and represented. Top-line summary: with the exception of a few duds and one line-crosser, they did a solid job, with much room for improvement, especially the inclusion of more Asian Americans and Latinxs. In the absence of scantily clad women—a staple of Super Bowl ads past—many ads skewed toward socially responsible or legitimately funny. Ads were, as expected, very shiny and sparkly, created to debut on this steroidal media platform. With over 100 million viewers and a 30 second ad costing upwards of 5 million dollars, the stakes and expectations were understandably high.

Before I delve in, I will admit that I am torn about following the National Football League, especially as it continues to garner serious negative attention. In 2012, a CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) study illustrated the evident brutality of the sport and confirmed long-term impairment and early death for the afflicted. In 2017, more pressing debates about civil disobedience and taking a knee during the National Anthem sidelined this heated discussion. This act, first performed by former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick and emulated by  numerous other players, elicited threats of monetary fines and suspensions, none of which were imposed. The tweets of #45 only heighten the jingoism that can get inextricably coupled with team spirit. Ongoing allegations of homophobia and racism are the flotsam that engulf these controversies. But I’ll get back to that in a bit.

Due to social media outcry against the planned use of a Prince hologram, Justin Timberlake’s halftime show instead featured a video projection and a tepid duet between him and the Artist. Really, they should have asked Janet Jackson instead. Photo by Lorie Shaull. Lorie Shaull/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

A few spots tackled diversity head-on. An ad for Blacture, “a voice and a vision for black culture,” featured hip-hop star Pras removing a blindfold and duct tape—an overt critique of the tone deaf and clueless ways that black culture is often represented (more evidence of this to come). T-Mobile showed us an unending line-up of cute babies in onesies, many of them minorities. In her voiceover, set to the musical backdrop of Kurt Cobain’s “All Apologies,” actress Kerry Washington assured us they would have a better world. Unlike companies that make equity statements without addressing their own corporate imbalances, T-Mobile claims to have a workforce that is 62 percent minorities and 42 percent women. Putting their money with their mouth is, indeed.

Asian Americans were notably absent, apart from Olympic figure skater Nathan Chen in an ad for the Winter Olympics. Likewise, singer Cardi B represented Latinxs, and dazzled in two commercials for  Amazon’s “Alexa.” If I missed other prominent Asian Americans and Latinxs, I’d love to know.

Other multicultural representation relied heavily on humor, but notably not ethnic humor—no small accomplishment for an industry that has for centuries trafficked in racial stereotypes. They went for highly successful talent being their funny selves. Comedian Keegan-Michael Key charmed as a cultural translator in a Rocket Mortgage ad. In a joint ad for Doritos “Blaze” and Mountain Dew “Ice,” an all-star cast featured rapper Busta Rymes lip synced by actor Peter Dinklage, and hip-hopper Missy Elliot performed by Morgan Freeman. The NFL ran an ad for itself in which New York Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. and quarterback Eli Manning did a step for step recreation of the final scene from the 1980s-hit film Dirty Dancing; ODB nailed the big finale that Baby spent half that movie learning. Coca-Cola, remembered for showing a woman in a hijab in a 2014 Super Bowl ad, did so again this year. While not as radical as their multilingual rendering of “America the Beautiful,” a poem called “The Wonder of Us” celebrated difference of all kinds. It notably included a gender non-conforming person, identified by the pronoun “they.” Yay!

An automaker using the zeitgeist of the civil rights movement to sell cars at a moment when players like Kaepernick are unofficially blacklisted for peaceful protest and civil disobedience was a true injustice.
But another ad wishing to make a social message did so horribly, bringing me back to my earlier point about how this game remains steeped in certain hypocrisies. A Ram truck ad featured a lengthy video and audio overlay of one of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s speeches, juxtaposed with trucks being used for good. Dr. King’s image has long been appropriated to sell things, but the buffer between NFL viewers and the scrutiny on kneeling black players (notably, not on white ones like Tim Tebow, who kneeled for his God), had long since eroded.

An automaker using the zeitgeist of the civil rights movement to sell cars at a moment when players like Kaepernick are unofficially blacklisted for peaceful protest and civil disobedience was a true injustice. The dark irony of this double standard was not lost on viewers, who lit up Twitter. @WhitneyM02 tweeted: “Dodge for real just used an MLK Jr. speech to show a bunch of white people doing random stuff around trucks so 2018 is going well.” Another tweeter @Travon quipped, “Does the Martin Luther King Jr. Dodge come with the Rosa Parallel Parks assist feature? Because if not you can keep it.” Among the many other sardonic, scathing tweets was this simple but memorable one by @Ugarles: “”I have a truck.” – Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.” For further excellent mockery, see Stephen Colbert’s send up of this ad.

What’s more, the excerpted speech is from Dr. King’s “Drum Major Instinct,” in which he cautions against conspicuous consumption—to use Sociologist Thorstein Veblen’s apt term from an earlier era—and spending beyond one’s means, especially on luxury cars to feed one’s ego.

The Super Bowl does not own February; it shares one night of it with Black History Month. Likewise, advertisers do not own black culture, though they have acted to the contrary for centuries. Casting more black people (and people of color in general) in ads would be a step in the right direction; commodifying their struggles for corporate gain should be ruled personal and societal fouls.

Shalini Shankar is Professor of Anthropology and Asian American studies at Northwestern. She writes on issues of language and culture, race, advertising, media, and youth. Her books include Advertising Diversity and Desi Land. She tweets from @shalini_shankar.

Cite as: Shankar, Shalini. 2018. “Ads and More!” Anthropology News website, February 11, 2018. DOI: 10.1111/AN.761

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