30-Second Warnings

30-Second Warnings Chips, Beer, Voyeuristic Horndogs, Hot Babes, Flatulent Slackers, and God’s Quarterback Star in the Big Game

In 1987, an evangelical Christian missionary in the
Philippines, Pam Tebow, sick and near term, ignored doctors' advice to
abort her fifth child. How could they know he would grow up to win a
Heisman Trophy and lead the University of Florida to two national

Twenty-three years later, before he even turned pro, Tim Tebow made
himself the player to beat in Sunday's Super Bowl XLIV by starring in a
30-second commercial for Focus on the Family, a Christian group that
opposes abortion and same-sex marriage. That the ad would run
represented a reversal of CBS's long-time policy against advocacy ads.
At this late date, it is still not certain if Tim's creation myth will
be included in the commercial, or even if the ad will be aired at all.

Whatever happens, the controversy put the game's spotlight back where it belongs -- on the advertising.

Super Bowl Sunday is America's holiest day, our all-inclusive
campfire, and with 100 million viewers, almost half of them women,
about as close as we get, without a presidential election, to taking
the national pulse. The ads tell us who we are and where we are going.
They are also Madison Avenue's best chance -- at a reported $3 million
or more a minute -- to create a buzz. In fact, in a world in which
TiVo-ing is spreading like wildfire, they may be Madison Avenue's last
chance to actually get watched on TV.

These days, when it comes to Super Bowl ads, the buzz never dies as
YouTube, best/worst commercial contests, chat rooms, and vigorous
follow-up ad campaigns carom around the precincts of popular culture.
Sacred, profane, gross, on-the-mark or clueless, the ads are cultural
signifiers. If Tebow gets to pitch on Sunday, his ad will share the air
with the basic football consumer groups: cars, tech, beer, soda, and
chips. And, of course, he'll be right there along with the stuff
everyone is waiting to see -- like those three nerds leering at a naked
Danica Patrick, the auto racer, for a website company, or that office
jerk farting for an employment service.

I am a Super Bowl ad fan. I'd rather go to the bathroom during a third-down play than miss a commercial.

You'll want to know my all-time favorites.

"You Should Be So Lucky"

For sheer prescience when it came to American foreign policy, nothing has beaten "Kenyan Runner," a Super Bowl commercial that ran just before Team W led us to eight losing seasons in Afghanistan, Iraq, and at home.

Imagine a black African runner in a singlet, loping barefoot across
an arid plain. White men in a Humvee are hunting him down as if he were
wild game. They drug him and, after he collapses, jam running shoes on
his feet. When he wakes up, he lurches around screaming, trying to kick
off the shoes.

This was 1999, two years before the 9/11 attacks and the invasions
that followed. The sponsor was Just For Feet, a retailer with 140 shoe
and sportswear super stores that blamed its advertising agency for the
spot -- before it collapsed in an accounting fraud and disappeared.

Colonialism anyone? Racism? Forcing our values on developing countries? Mission accomplished.

Then there was prescience on the domestic front in another Super Bowl ad, "Money Out the Whazoo": imagine
a middle-aged man wheeled into an emergency room. Doctors and nurses
turn him over and someone says, "He has money coming out the whazoo." A
hospital administrator officiously asks his distraught wife if they
have insurance. A doctor calls out, "Money out the whazoo!" The
administrator says, "Take him to a private room."

The tag line was: "You should be so lucky." This was 2000. The
sponsor was E*Trade, the online stock gambling outfit. How did they
know that the economy was going to tank just when the health-care
system would go up for grabs?

If you'd been paying attention to the ads instead of the game, you, too, could have sold America short.

My Super Bowl favorites, you might have guessed by now, are not
consensus picks. Most fans seem to prefer the 1979 Coke commercial in
which Mean Joe Greene,
the Pittsburgh Steelers Hall of Fame defensive tackle, limps off the
field past a young boy who offers him his Coke. Greene sucks it down
and, as the kid turns away, says, "Hey, kid, catch," throwing him his
jersey. While this ad is usually number one or two in best Super Bowls
lists, it actually first aired several months before the game.

Oh, what a better time that was, when we truly loved our sports heroes and felt for them when they were beaten. The remake of that ad, in 2009, showed how much we've lost in 30 years. As Troy Polamalu,
the Pittsburgh strong safety, limps off the field, a kid offers him his
Coca-Cola Zero. Before he can take it, two Coke brand managers grab it
and run off. Polamalu tackles them, grabs the bottle, drains it, then
rips off one of the manager's shirts and tosses it to the kid.

That snarky (post-irony?) parody of the iconic Mean Joe Greene
commercial may be obvious enough, but that's no reason not to pile on
the subtexts: Labor and management in the National Football League are
now gearing up for serious confrontations. The Supreme Court is hearing
one of them -- a challenge to the league's anti-trust exemption which
will have an impact on, among many other things, the sale of jerseys.
No wonder Troy ripped the shirt off management's back.

Root for Big Easy

The other main candidate for top Super Bowl ad in most of those lists is the 1984 commercial in which a woman runner,
pursued by Orwellian storm troopers, runs past hundreds of gray people
listening to Big Brother to smash the establishment (read IBM) with her
sledgehammer. That Apple Revolution really freed us, right? In the
quarter-century to follow, thanks to iPod, iPhone, and iPad, a
generation without empathy, head down, shuffles into textiness. And
Apple still doesn't even have a majority market share.

(Non-Commercial interruption: Should you find yourself actually
watching the game, root for New Orleans. Saints quarterback Drew Brees
is a member of the executive committee of the NFL Players Association.
In a recent Washington Post op-ed column he wrote:
"[I]f the Supreme Court agrees with the NFL's argument that the teams
act as a single entity rather than as 32 separate, vigorously
competitive and extremely profitable entities, the absence of antitrust
scrutiny would enable the owners to exert total control over this
multibillion-dollar business." A final decision on what originally was
a suit brought by a jilted gear supplier is expected this summer.)

The modern Mad Men and Women who call the signals for Super Bowl
commercials are not always given as much credit as they deserve for
grasping the American mood. Their most interesting ads can't be taken
at face value. For example, who could forget -- although Holiday Inn
seems to have tried -- the 1997 class-reunion ad
in which a hot babe struts through the party, chest out, her blond hair
swinging, as a voice-over ticks off the part-by-part cost of her
cosmetic surgery make-over? The message: her make-over involves mere
thousands of dollars, compared to the millions Holiday Inn has spent on
renovations. You must remember the tagline: she's finally recognized
by a former classmate who sputters, "Bob... Bob Johnson?"

So what were the Mads telling us here? If pricey renovations were
acceptable for corporations, they were also acceptable for ordinary
people? That Holiday Inn going upscale was no different from
transitioning genders? Or, by extension, that anything a corporation
can do, you can, too? In other words, corporate privilege equals
personal agency.

And this was 13 years before the Supreme Court decided to extendindividual
freedom of expression to corporations. (Extraneous note: "freedom of
expression" is now a tagline for a Botox treatment.)

The Snickers Smack

In 2007, when a General Motors ad showed a robot committing suicide
after making an assembly-line mistake, the message seemed unclear
(unless this was a Philip K. Dick dream). Shouldn't it be the
car-maker, in traditional Japanese fashion, who commits hara-kiri
after years of colossal mistakes? But now we understand: it was an
early warning -- the American worker was at the end of the line; no
handouts, pal, you're on your own.

That was the same year when two men, simultaneously eating a Snickers bar,
first touched lips during a Super Bowl game. When I initially saw it, I
thought: if anything can conquer homophobia, it's chocolate. But then
they did the I'm-not-gay double take and began tearing off chest hair
in a "manly" display.

The Mads had struck again, brilliantly reinforcing my own impression
as a sportswriter that the NFL is the most homophobic, yet homoerotic,
of team sports. With all that touching and hugging in public (and all
that naked horseplay in the locker-room), no wonder some players have
reacted with such hostility to the few who have come out after
retirement. That Super Bowl ad will be at least an hour's lecture in
someone's Queer Studies course.

Because of their insecure young male demographic, ads tend to be so
aggressively and cartoonishly hetero that 1) there is no orientation
issue, and 2) there is no threat of actually having to perform. You can
watch sexy women the same way you watch football players -- from a
superior remove.

For example, in last year's commercial for GoDaddy.com,
the domain-name company, three nerds found they could control events
from their laptop. Not only did they make Danica Patrick, an Indy
driver, take a shower for them, but they added "that German woman from
the dean's office."

This year, Danica gets to flashdance and dress up like Marilyn
Monroe. GoDaddy is known for ads, run relentlessly on the Internet,
that are too risque and provocative for the networks.

In this Sunday's CareerBuilder spot,
a cubicle clown ostentatiously farts, annoying a prim female co-worker.
When the boss walks up, she thinks the jerk is cooked. But the boss
lends the jerk his lighter to ignite the fumes. He wants the lighter
back, he says; one imagines him farting, too.

Hey, boys will be boys. If she can't take the heat let her go back to the kitchen. After all, this is 2010!

If it wasn't in such company, I would be more concerned about Tim
Tebow's Focus on the Family commercial. I'd angst away: What does it really
mean? What are the Mads telling us about the future? That the country
is turning back toward the right? That the networks, in their twilight,
need every buck they can get and don't care where it comes from? That
Tebow, who has always seen football as his pulpit to spread evangelical
Christianity, is presaging a new era of star athletes standing for

None of the above. It's a hopeful message. Obama centrism will
prevail, stabilize the country, and prepare it for progressive reform,
because even football fans will understand that Super Bowl sideshows --
be they about voyeuristic horndogs, flatulent slackers, star
quarterbacks, or God knows how many holy day trippers jamming down
food-like products and loser liquids -- can be taken seriously only on
Sunday. (Now, that may be the Philip K. Dick dream.)

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