Here’s the thing: I know why most of you are here.
It’s Sunday, Feb. 12, and you’re on the couch like millions of other Americans, surrounded by snacks, ready for a game with its name spelled out in Roman numerals. But you’re not here to see the quarterback matchup, the effectiveness of the pass rush, the coaches’ willingness to go for it on fourth down.
You’re here for the commercials.
I get it. I happen to be a devout football fan, which means I also see a lot of commercials, and the ones during the Super Bowl are just different from the ones I’ve been rolling my eyes at since the regular season began last September.
The Super Bowl isn’t just the biggest stage in American football — it’s the biggest stage in advertising, as brands take advantage of the game’s millions upon millions of viewers, paying big bucks for ad spots that will, for better or worse, live on in our collective consciousness. (Remember the E-Trade baby? Or last year’s FTX commercial, which, as of this writing, has not aged well?)
We’ve already seen teasers for ads by brands like Heineken, TurboTax and Hellmann’s Mayonnaise — as well as the mysterious “He Gets Us” campaign, which is “devoted to redeeming the brand of Christianity’s savior.” (But that’s an entirely different essay.)
It’s not exactly hard to pinpoint what these advertisers are doing: they are capitalizing on trends, appealing to our nostalgic nature, tugging at our heartstrings. These are all “tactics they’re taking to garner maximum audience impact,” according to PR Daily’s look at the archetypes of Super Bowl commercials.
This Super Bowl Sunday, though, we might want to experiment with a few tactics of our own.
When I was helping create the new PracticingOurFaith.org website, I was struck by a suggestion from the Household Economics page:
Turn off the sound whenever a commercial comes on TV. What do you notice about your attention to the commercial when you can’t hear it? Ask yourself or anyone watching with you, “What does the maker of this commercial want from me? How do I want to respond?”
During the Super Bowl, you probably won’t want to risk the ire of everyone around you by turning off the sound during commercials. But in the spirit of these ideas from Practicing Our Faith, here are five questions to ask yourself (and maybe even those watching with you) as the most-anticipated ads of the year blaze across your screen:
- What do the makers of this commercial want from me? The answers to this might seem obvious: watch the commercial, buy whatever they’re selling to help their bottom line and stock value, etc. But what else is being asked of you as you take in the sounds and images? What are you being encouraged to let go of or hold on to?
- What is this commercial promising? If we were all content with what we already had, then advertisers would be out of a job. Commercials tap into needs, some of them deeper than we might think. When you watch a commercial, think about the implicit and explicit promises it makes. At the surface, you might be promised a reliable car, a delicious potato chip or a personalized insurance plan. Peek below the surface, though, and what do you find? Promises of security, safety, status, happiness, health, individualism, autonomy?
- According to this commercial, what does the “good life” look like? It will probably look like a life that needs whatever the commercial is trying to sell: a car, a snack, an insurance plan. But what images and language are being used to portray that vision of a “good life”? How are devices like humor or celebrity cameos or music working to sell that vision to you?
- How does this commercial make me feel? Amused? Cynical? Inspired? Annoyed? What about it makes you feel that way?
- How do I want to respond? You may want to respond by buying whatever Doritos or PopCorners flavor you just saw being munched on screen. But maybe you’ll start asking questions like these not just during the Super Bowl but at any other time you turn on the TV, see a billboard or scroll past a sponsored post on a social media feed.
Pausing to interrogate the modes and messages of even the most innocent-seeming ads is a critical, crucial practice. As Sharon Daloz Parks reminds us in the original “Household Economics” essay from the book “Practicing Our Faith,” “the market has become ubiquitous. Once, we only went to market. Now the market comes to us. … We wear advertising on our clothing and plaster it on every facade of our common life.”
Recognizing this, how will we respond? What will our next faithful step be?
It’s not exactly hard to pinpoint what these advertisers are doing: they are capitalizing on trends, appealing to our nostalgic nature, tugging at our heartstrings.