Taking America’s Pulse: a roundup of the 2014 Super Bowl commercials

A reflection and analysis of the super (and not so super) advertisements aired during America's biggest football game of the year.

What’s so great about Super Bowl commercials, anyway? Why do we care? As a good friend of mine pointed out on Facebook a few hours before the big game: “you guys know that there are commercials on literally every screen and surface of your life, every single day, right?” Touché.

For the past three years, I’ve written a roundup of the best and the worst in the realm of Super Bowl commercials. For many people - especially those who, like me, don’t care much for football - the commercials are more important than the game itself. They are, supposedly, the cream of the crop of advertising genius. It’s a moment in which the cinematic creatives who chose marketing over movies display their talents for an audience of millions.

I’ve been critical of advertising for as long as I can remember, probably since my first eye-opening media literacy lesson in high school global studies: the lesson on Nazi propaganda. Also, as a feminist writer, I can’t help but recognize the ways in which “traditional” and limiting gender roles are reinforced, co-opted, manipulated and regurgitated back at us to tell us what we should want to buy. Whether it’s a woman serving as little more than arm candy to a man driving a fancy car or drinking some fancy (or not-so-fancy) alcohol, or Axe telling men they need to be a certain kind of masculine to “get the girl,” the landscape of Super Bowl advertising has been gender- and sex-focused for almost as long as Super Bowl commercials have been around.

One organization, The Representation Project, has made it their mission to combat problematic representations of gender in the media. Inspired by the outpouring of support for founder Jennifer Siebel Newsom’s film Miss Representation, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2011, the non-profit seeks to “highlight and challenge the limiting depictions of women in the media and our larger culture,” and to use “film and media content to expose injustices created by gender stereotypes and to shift people’s consciousness towards change.”

The Representation Project’s efforts began largely on Twitter, with the hashtag #NotBuyingIt, debuted in 2012. Users of the hashtag are encouraged to call out sexist media and pledge to boycott the companies that use it - and no time is this hashtag more ubiquitous then during the Super Bowl. 

After more than 10,000 tweets were sent with the hashtag during the 2013 game - most of them about GoDaddy’s shocking Kate Upton makeout ad - the founders launched an Indiegogo campaign to fund an app dedicated to the cause. (Full disclosure: I contributed to the campaign.)

The app was funded and launched just weeks before the 2014 Super Bowl and had been downloaded worldwide over 30,000 times by the end of the game. This year, according to The Representation Project’s communications director Imran Siddiquee, the hashtag was included in over 15,000 tweets, resulting in 2.4 million impressions. 

But how did this year compare to past years? As the game started to wind down (not that it was ever that exciting to begin with), deputy editor of Upworthy Rebecca Eisenberg tweeted exactly what I had been thinking the whole game, but was too afraid to say, for fear of jinxing it.

Indeed, this year, there were surprisingly few sexist commercials. Even the medium’s most egregious transgressor GoDaddy went a different route, hyping a spot in which a young mechanical engineer named Gwen quit her job to pursue a career making puppets, with the help of her GoDaddy-hosted website, PuppetsByGwen.com.

That’s some effective advertising! If not for their past sins, I might even consider them as a hosting service. Maybe.

Some animal rights activists and #NotBuyingIt tweeters took issue with the Chevy Silverado commercial featuring “sexy cows.” Many called out the car manufacturer for its promotion of force impregnation of animals, and the implied “breeding” forced on human women.

However, I have to disagree. In fact, I think the ad in a way flipped our expectation of these manly, studly Chevy commercials on its head, imposing the idea of attraction and romance on animals in a way that was, in fact, quite funny. And Chevy’s later ad, co-sponsored by the American Cancer Society, was incredibly moving and tasteful.

Critics were correct, though, in their outcry against the Turbo Tax “Love Hurts,” spot, in which a young man hopes to “take back” his crush by impressing her with his hefty tax return. This implies all manner of nasty things, from women-as-property, to women being bought, to women-as-golddiggers. 

Perhaps (at least, we hope) because of the overwhelming outpouring of support for #NotBuyingIt and The Representation Project, two ads this year directly challenged the critique that advertising sidelines women and girls.

Early in the night Maserati aired a long, 90-second ad featuring the indomitable Quvenzhané Wallis (Beasts of the Southern Wild) on a worldwide adventure, reciting a manifesto about power, cleverness, and overcoming adversity.

“We knew that being clever was more important than being the biggest kid in the neighborhood.”*

Sure, she’s touting the power of a very expensive car company working to compete with other, more influential manufacturers. But to hear a young black woman give such an empowering speech was moving enough to make this one of my favorite spots of the night.

Another favorite of mine was, of course, this girl power fest GoldieBlox commercial (sponsored by Intuit, which redeemed itself in the wave of that terrible Turbo Tax prom ad).

GoldieBlox is “a toy company on a mission to inspire the next generation of female engineers.” They won a contest to have their ad aired, and boy am I glad they did.

In lieu of an overarching sexist theme this year, many advertisers went for nostalgia, spoke to our meme-saturated internet culture, or to the so-called restlessness of the millenial generation. In certain markets, the Church of Scientology tried to appeal to a similar restlessness by wedding science and religion.

Other ads went for patriotism. Bob Dylan made an appearance in a controversial Chrysler ad, where he pushed all of our “made in America,” Detroit-nostalgia buttons, but ended on a curiously uninformed note.

“Let Germany brew your beer. Let Switzerland make your watch. Let Asia assemble your phone. We will build your car.”

Spoiler alert: the majority shareholder in the Chrysler company is Fiat, an Italian company! Oops. Not so American after all, I guess. 

Also, “let Asia assemble your phone”? Factories in Asia that assemble phones are largely controlled - and its workers are often exploited - by American parent companies. Quite a confusing assertion to make, Mr. Dylan. And that doesn’t even take into account the fact that Dylan, the king of the anti-establishment, is promoting the corporate car manufacturer.

No doubt the winner for most controversial ad goes to Coca-Cola. Their “It’s Beautiful” ad featured “America the Beautiful” sung in myriad languages against a background of numerous scenes of diversity and life in the United States.

An aesthetic masterpiece, which made a bold statement about the value of diversity in America, drew outrage across the Twittersphere. Though I won’t dignify any bigots by embedding their tweets here, you can check out the hashtags #fuckcoke or #boycottcoke if you’re looking to be depressed by the horrific, shameless racism that pervades in our country.

These are just a few highlights of what advertisers had to offer on Sunday night. I know, I’ve left out quite a few good ones. But honestly, I found most commercials this year to be pretty generic - even boring. I’m certain none will stick in my mind after a week or two. Maybe my cynical friend was right: Super Bowl commercials are just commercials - just slightly more creative attempts by marketers to get us to buy their stuff. And it will all happen again next year. 

All we can hope for is even less sexism, less racist reactions, and (as always) more adorable Budweiser animals.

Other random favorites:

Dancing Ellen (Beats Music and AT&T)

Axe PEACE Make Love Not War

Seinfeld Reunion

Full House Reunion (Oikos yogurt)

A touching look at assistive technology (Microsoft)

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