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Tasteless Halftimes: Advertising and Culture

Why should anyone have been so shocked by the sexually explicit content of the Super Bowl halftime show? Why especially should FCC Chairman Michael Powell be outraged? Powell celebrates the no-holds-barred competition of media giants. CBS-Viacom is a major media conglomerate whose only objective is to maximize its profits. It invested millions to purchase rights to the Super Bowl. Its return on its investment depends upon delivering large numbers of demographically appropriate viewers to its advertisers. Given its quest to maximize its viewers, especially among those highly coveted 25- to 50-year-old males with discretionary income, halftime shows that move beyond football analysis and marching bands to R-rated song and dance routines are a natural.

Many of the critics of this halftime show dwell on its purported unsuitability for family viewing. Yet a halftime show featuring Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake and well-advertised in advance certainly gave the knowledgeable viewer some warning.

If one were really concerned about suitability for family viewing, the commercials for any football game would be more suitable target. As a viewer, I know pretty much what I'm going to get with the game and a halftime show. But the commercials can include everything from movie previews drenched in bloodcurdling violence to far more demeaning sexual exploitation of scantily clad women than anything Justin Timberlake did. At least, by some accounts, Jackson gained - and perhaps sought - a little free publicity for her latest work.

This whole controversy would better serve as a moment to explore the limits of our commercially controlled media and the role of advertising in our culture. It has become commonplace to attack rap and pornography as sources of a declining commitment to both work and family among the young. But if Jackson and Timberlake are trying to turn American youth into bar hoppers or sex maniacs, they have a lot of company.

A recent ad for Saab includes the following subtext: "All they did was eat, sleep, and work. Be glad you're not a Puritan." Not being Puritans, of course, the ad suggests we have the sense to buy a Saab, close its doors, and drive into the country. Other ads engage in more direct rebukes of Puritanism and the work ethic. Consider those beer ads featuring prominent sports stars long idolized especially by teenagers urging us to remember that 21 means 21. If these ads are put in the context of others portraying young men and women engaged in riotous celebrations of sexual display and alcoholic excess one can only ask whom are you kidding?

For most advertising executives, Puritanism is repellent not primarily because it is an outmoded ethic or because it imposes outrageous limitations on human development. It no longer can sustain our consumer culture. Middle-class Americans enjoy extraordinary living standards. Measured in terms of real material affluence, they have at least twice as much as their grandparents 50 years ago. Yet they also work longer hours. With both parents now engaged in full time work, the demands of the workplace have become consuming and oppressive.

In the literature about work and capitalism written some 50 years ago, the promise and for some the fear was that late twentieth century technology would enable the 20- or even 10-hour workweek as the norm. Leisure would be continually expanding. Today, however, work seems to be continually expanding. And this creates a dilemma. Increasingly, the products we sell cannot be marketed through reference to real needs. Their appeal must lie in either addressing status anxiety or by promising us release from the burdens of further work and further consumption.

An economy that can only be kept afloat by stimulating demand for ever more goods and services will always find advertising and commercialism essential. When the media are funded primarily by commercials, they too will be shaped by the same imperative. Even as the media severely limit the range of political discourse, as CBS Viacom did by excluding the ad, they often simultaneously offend many social conservatives with advertising that symbolically challenges the bounds of conventional family and workplace norms. Those norms often deserve challenges, but not in the interests of mindless and exploitive forms of release. In any case, viewers should have a genuine choice as to how, when, and by whom they are challenged and entertained.

Defenders of the American economy celebrate choice. Nonetheless, as a viewer I may have networks for golf and fishing but few real choices reflecting different cultures or worldviews. Most media choices are dominated by commercial considerations. As a consumer I have few product choices not burdened by the extra expense and manipulation of consumer advertising. Even more than a good football game, this year's Super Bowl was an unusually clear example of the limits of commercial culture.

John Buell

John Buell

John Buell has a PhD in political science, taught for 10 years at College of the Atlantic, and was an Associate Editor of The Progressivefor ten years. He lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine and writes on labor and environmental issues. His most recent book, published by Palgrave in August 2011, is "Politics, Religion, and Culture in an Anxious Age." He may be reached at

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