By Tom Shales
Monday, February 6, 2006
It wasn't a particularly brutal football game, and there were no "wardrobe malfunctions" during the halftime show, but the commercials that aired during Super Bowl XL last night were full to the brim -- and beyond -- with sex and violence.
In olden times -- say, the 1970s, '80s and '90s -- it was uncommon for people to be depicted as being killed or just plain dying in TV commercials, or for death to be mentioned at all unless the sponsor was a mortuary or life insurance company. But the costly, caustic commercials shown during this year's orgy of football and merchandising were violent when they weren't sexy, sexy when they weren't violent, and sometimes both at once.
By contrast, the game -- in which the Pittsburgh Steelers defeated the Seattle Seahawks, 21-10, in a clash aired on ABC from Detroit's Ford Field -- was not particularly rough-and-tumble. While the first half was largely a snooze, both teams came to life in the second and gave viewers a fairly good show -- visually the most gorgeous Super Bowl in history, since more of it was telecast in high definition than ever before.
The notorious "wardrobe malfunction" of 2004, when singer Janet Jackson revealed more cleavage than CBS bargained for, was mockingly referred to by ABC in a promo for its semi-hit series "Dancing With the Stars." Shapely babes were seen in scanty attire cavorting with dance partners or simply and sensuously caressing themselves while a caption taunted, "Wardrobe malfunction? You wish!"
Hypocritically perhaps, ABC had arranged for the entire telecast, including a halftime show by those still slithery senior citizens the Rolling Stones, to air on a five-second delay. Thus could any unforeseen shocks be eliminated with the flip of a switch. And yet the network itself ran promos that were remarkable for their blatant suggestiveness.
According to the Associated Press, there was no visual censoring of the Stones but edits were made to lyrics for two of the band's songs: "Rough Justice" and "Start Me Up."
The prevailing theme was violence, however. A comical commercial for FedEx, set in prehistoric times, ended with a caveman being squashed to death by the gigantic foot of a dinosaur. In the pregame show, Coca-Cola introduced its new "energy drink" called Full Throttle Fury with outrageous, almost self-parodying scenes of macho men virtually destroying a town -- cars, trucks and motorcycles crashing and bashing -- in pursuit of this stupid refreshment.
Apparently the drink contains a sizable amount of pure testosterone. Its slogan is "Let your man out."
Bud Light led the way with, for the most part, the cleverest commercials and the largest number of different ads. In one, however, a company employee announces he has hidden bottles of the beer all over the office as a work incentive. Cut to scenes of other employees knocking down walls, overturning desks, doing everything but setting the place on fire in order to locate the hidden brew.
We Americans love our beer -- more than we love anything else, if these commercials are to be believed.
Perhaps the most talked about commercial, at least prior to the Super Bowl, was a lavish musical number staged on behalf of Burger King and using the long-retired "special orders don't upset us" musical theme. Gorgeous girls dressed as lettuce, pickles, tomatoes and various condiments danced and pranced and hurled themselves onto giant waiting patties. The ad was a spoof of the old Busby Berkeley musicals of the 1930s.
However, Berkeley's style has been imitated in other commercials for years, including one memorable spot by legendary adman Stan Freberg in which musical star Ann Miller danced on, among other things, a gigantic can of Campbell's Soup.
Cheery musical spoofs were easily the exception, not the rule. A trailer for one of this summer's new movies, "V for Vendetta," offered heaps of graphic mayhem including the destruction of both Houses of Parliament and London's iconic Big Ben via terrorist bombs. A commercial for the Tom Cruise movie "M:I:III" (the third "Mission: Impossible" film) was similarly wall-to-wall and floor-to-ceiling with rabid destruction. Jackie Chan was enlisted in a mock commercial for Diet Pepsi and did his usual highly physical if also largely whimsical violent stunts.
In a commercial for Sprint cell phones, a happy customer told a friend that the phone not only downloaded e-mail and music videos but also acted as a "crime deterrent." The friend asked how the phone could be a crime deterrent, and the customer demonstrated by bashing him over the head with it -- perhaps killing him?
Other ads with high violent content included one for Degree, the deodorant; and "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest," a movie sequel due July 7 from the ever-desperate Disney, which owns ABC. One of the most blatantly sexual ads -- which had been shown on other programs prior to the Super Bowl -- showed a heavy-breathing Jessica Simpson in a tight-tight dress seducing a boy who appeared to be 14, 15 or at most 16 by sexily popping Cheesy Bites from Pizza Hut into his eager open mouth.
Sometimes sex and violence could, in the time-honored American tradition, be combined, and not always offensively. One ad depicted a gigantic robot stalking a city in the company of a huge, and hugely pregnant, green monster. Eventually a red Hummer is born to the grotesque couple. Slogan: "It's a little monster."
At least that one was funny.
So many of the ads were violent, though, that it was unsettling. Sometimes the violence was only by implication but included unusually morbid innuendo. As part of a series of comic vignettes from the Ameriquest Mortgage Co., two interns in a hospital room zap a pesky fly with the paddles normally used to revive cardiacpatients. The patient's wife and two children enter the room and see their husband and father lying motionless as one intern exclaims, "That killed him!"
Looks of horror and fear crossed their shocked faces.
Unquestionably, the business of making Super Bowl commercials has also become something of an art -- so much so that many of the ads were shown in advance as news items well before making their "debut" on the game. Those who had the terrible misfortune of missing the commercials during the game could see them on Yahoo and other Web sites.
Maybe some year the networks will do us a favor and air all the commercials in one big hour-long clump so that people who don't like football can see them. As for this year's spots, it was often a relief when the violent commercials ended and the comparatively gentle game of professional football could resume.
Something is wrong with this picture. But then something is wrong with so many pictures these days.