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26 July 2016 10:17 (South Africa)
Life, etc

It’s the Super Bowl commercials, stupid!

  • Richard Poplak
    HEADSHOT_Rich-Poplak_orange.jpg
    Richard Poplak

    Richard Poplak was born and lives in Johannesburg, South Africa. He trained as a filmmaker and fine artist at Montreal’s Concordia University and has produced and directed numerous short films, music videos and commercials. Now a full-time writer, Richard is a senior contributor at South Africa’s leading news site, Daily Maverick, and a frequent contributor to publications all over the world. He is a member of Deca Stories, the international long-form non-fiction collective.

    His first book was the highly acclaimed Ja, No, Man: Growing Up White in Apartheid-Era South Africa (Penguin, 2007); his follow-up was entitled The Sheikh’s Batmobile: In Pursuit of American Pop-Culture in the Muslim World (Soft Skull, 2010). Poplak has also written the experimental journalistic graphic novel Kenk: A Graphic Portrait (Pop Sandbox, 2010). His election coverage from South Africa’s 2014 election, written under the nom de plume Hannibal Elector, was collected as Until Julius Comes: Adventures in the Political Jungle (Tafelberg, 2014).  Ja, No, Man was longlisted for the Alan Paton Non-Fiction prize, shortlisted for the University of Johannesburg Literary Award and voted one of the Top-10 books of 2007 by Now Magazine. Richard has won South Africa’s Media-24 Best Feature Writing Award and a National Magazine Award in Canada.

    Since 2010, Poplak has been travelling across Africa, seeking out the catalysts and characters behind the continent’s 21stcentury metamorphosis. The coming book, co-authored with Kevin Bloom, is called The Shift

  • Life, etc
Poplak on Super Bowl commercialsgvdw.jpg

They’re loud, they’re dumb, they’re an intimate look at America’s soul! Super Bowl commercials are an anthropologist’s delight. RICHARD POPLAK goes anthropologising.

The Super Bowl has come and gone. It was an instructive cultural moment, including as it did a half-hour long power outage – the sort of thing pundits were sure would constantly bedevil the 2010 Fifa World Cup Finals. (But didn’t.) The San Francisco 49ers were tipped to win, and instead they lost. The Baltimore Ravens were tipped to lose, and won. That’s sports for ya.

But the Super Bowl is more than just a sporting tournament. It’s a reading of the American pop cultural viscera, a four-hour-long extravaganza that reminds us of where the world’s superpower stands in its historic arc. If Beyoncé’s halftime show was anything to go by, America stands in an era of glitter and hairspray – in other words, a version of the 70s. And indeed, the true bellwether – the fabulously expensive Super Bowl commercials – backed this assertion up with aplomb. 

Watch: Jeep "Whole Again"

As the New York Times noted, there was a certain nostalgia that permeated the commercials – a yearning for a time when America was America, a time when men were men and boys were boys, a time when Oprah narrated things. Indeed, Oprah’s voice talked us through one of two manifestly old skool spots – a Chrysler commercial for its Jeep brand called “Whole Again”.

“We hope. We wait. We pray. Until you’re home again,” intoned Oprah, over vague shots of Americans hoping, waiting and praying. It was an ode to the American military-industrial complex, a sad-sack jingo so perfectly evocative of American football’s unsubtle link to the armed forces that it will probably sell a lot of jeeps. In the not inconsiderable annals of advertising cynicism, this spot will rank in the top 10 – America’s returning veterans used to sell a military vehicle repurposed for civilian use. (Dodge’s Ram’s “God Made a Farmer” commercial was, arguably, just as creepy. But the truck is doper.)

The second ol’ timey spot depicted a horse trainer raising a foal, selling it off to Budweiser as one of its famous Clydesdales, and reuniting with it following a parade. Anthropomorphic animals are always a winner, and I challenge even the toughest Bud drinker not to get teary-eyed at this spot.

2013 Budweiser Super Bowl Ad — The Clydesdales: "Brotherhood"

Commercials for Subway and E*Trade were so generic that one wonders why they bothered blowing roughly $4 million to buy the airtime. Surely, this is the time to show off the top shelf stuff, rather than the gunk at the bottom of the pile. But it’s interesting to note just how cautious some companies were not to offend.

Even Axe, which has always used misogyny to sell cheap body spray, the spot for their new “fragrance”, Apollo, felt a little milquetoast.

Watch: AXE - Lifeguard

Go Daddy is never nervous to offend, and its supermodel-French-kissing-a-nerd spot does exactly that. The company makes sure that bimbos are the keystone in any good campaign, and how exactly this sells Internet domain names is beyond me. The commercials are more a testament to the hold that pervy founder and executive chairman Bob Parsons has over the company. (His last big moment on YouTube involved a rifle, a dead elephant, and Zimbabwe. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals was unimpressed.)

Anyway, here’s a commercial of a supermodel kissing a nerd.

Watch: Perfect Match - Bar Refaeli's Big Kiss! | Official GoDaddy.com Commercial

What would Super Bowl Sunday be without racism? It wouldn’t be Super Bowl Sunday, is what. Enter Volkswagen’s commercial for its reworked reworking of the Beetle. It stars a white fellow from Minnesota spreading good cheer around a miserable office via his Jamaican accent. Nothing troubles him; he’s lax with time; he’s always happy. You know, like a black person. He does not earn his outlook thanks to weed, but due to his Beetle. It makes a nice companion piece to Django Unchained.

Volkswagen Game Day 2013 Commercial | Get In. Get Happy.

Taco Bell scores some easy points with its Viva Young spot, starring a group of aged folk escaping their retirement home for a night on the time. The main character is an old timer called Bernie Goldblatt and the spot’s finest moment shows him getting a “Goldblatt” tattoo on his back. It’s a mash-up of Cocoon and The Hangover, and the only downside is that the concept is now wasted on selling lousy Tex-Mex. The Spanish version of  We are young, the Fun classic, is a keeper.

Watch:  Viva Young - 2013 Taco Bell Game Day Commercial

Which brings us to Tide, the unequivocal winner. The minute-long spot tells the story of the miracle “Joe Montana” stain, which drips from a nacho onto a 49ers jersey, and is instantly famous around the ‘Frisco area. A simultaneous send up of celebrity culture and religious nut jobs, the spot’s satirical bent is dead on. And the tagline–“no stain is sacred” –acts as a great punch line. First class advertising, if there is such a thing.

Running a close second was Mercedes’ “Soul” spot, starring Willem Dafoe as Satan, come to exact the soul of a young man in exchange for a brand new CLA. Again, we cut into some Hangover-style fantasy sequences, but with a price tag under $30,000, our young protagonist informs the devil that, “You know, I think I got this.” And Willem disappears in a puff of smoke. Funny stuff.

In all, the advertisements represent, well, nothing–except for the fact that capitalism is alive and well in America, and results in some truly appalling commercials. And some decent ones. If journalism is history’s first draft, then commercials are pop culture’s frontline. If the Go Daddy spot is anything to go by, we’re in trouble. But Tide, Bud and Mercedes are keeping us safe from immediate harm. Now stop reading, and go buy something. DM

Photo: Baltimore Ravens free safety Ed Reed (20) celebrates next to the Vince Lombardi Trophy after his team defeated the San Francisco 49ers in the NFL Super Bowl XLVII football game in New Orleans, Louisiana, February 3, 2013. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

  • Richard Poplak
    HEADSHOT_Rich-Poplak_orange.jpg
    Richard Poplak

    Richard Poplak was born and lives in Johannesburg, South Africa. He trained as a filmmaker and fine artist at Montreal’s Concordia University and has produced and directed numerous short films, music videos and commercials. Now a full-time writer, Richard is a senior contributor at South Africa’s leading news site, Daily Maverick, and a frequent contributor to publications all over the world. He is a member of Deca Stories, the international long-form non-fiction collective.

    His first book was the highly acclaimed Ja, No, Man: Growing Up White in Apartheid-Era South Africa (Penguin, 2007); his follow-up was entitled The Sheikh’s Batmobile: In Pursuit of American Pop-Culture in the Muslim World (Soft Skull, 2010). Poplak has also written the experimental journalistic graphic novel Kenk: A Graphic Portrait (Pop Sandbox, 2010). His election coverage from South Africa’s 2014 election, written under the nom de plume Hannibal Elector, was collected as Until Julius Comes: Adventures in the Political Jungle (Tafelberg, 2014).  Ja, No, Man was longlisted for the Alan Paton Non-Fiction prize, shortlisted for the University of Johannesburg Literary Award and voted one of the Top-10 books of 2007 by Now Magazine. Richard has won South Africa’s Media-24 Best Feature Writing Award and a National Magazine Award in Canada.

    Since 2010, Poplak has been travelling across Africa, seeking out the catalysts and characters behind the continent’s 21stcentury metamorphosis. The coming book, co-authored with Kevin Bloom, is called The Shift

  • Life, etc

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