Cultural zeitgeist, scored by Super Bowl commercials

By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 7, 2011; 12:30 AM

The effects of 45 (or XLV, if you must) direct slams to the head could be clearly seen Sunday night on that annual American CAT scan called the Super Bowl. Whole parts of our collective cerebellum now show up as having the color and consistency of old gum. Too many insipid Black Eyed Peas songs will do that to a civilization. The cheese really is baked into the crust.

But willingly, like achy old pros, we returned to the holy rituals of this brutal game, this billion-dollar boondoggle, tweeting our delight that seven-layer dip has somehow become nine. Distraction is the real attraction, which gets a little more true each year.

The latest brain damage: Christina Aguilera can't remember the words to the national anthem, which is embarrassing for her and for us, but mostly her. The excuses and apologies will surely come via press release in a matter of hours, but does anybody remember what we used to do to people who butchered "The Star-Spangled Banner" so obviously? (In case you don't, as if on cue, here was Roseanne Barr herself, getting whacked by a log in a rehash of last year's Snickers candy bar ads.)

More dulled responses, glaze-y eyes: A-Rod sat up in Jerry Jones's elite seats with the likes of the Bushes and the Travoltas, seemingly unable to feed himself popcorn, relying instead on the twiggy fingers of his nurse, Cameron Diaz, to provide him sustenance, which she did, with the expression of an Angry Bird. This too immediately looped the globe several times as a YouTube clip.

There was also a football game, and by the fourth quarter it only briefly became one that justified its length and hype, ending in a 31-25 win for the Green Bay Packers. For those of us who don't spend much of a typical NFL season watching games, Super Bowl remains a refreshing reminder of how perfected the art of live sportscasting has become in the high-def era. Every year is an upgrade, a crisper picture, a sense that no expense will ever be spared. They can say what they want about us, but gosh, could our generation ever televise a football game.

But this, of course, is a review of everything else.

Super Bowl's commercials - upon which so much of the cultural zeitgeist hangs its hopes - mostly failed to score big. There were a few highlights here and there, beginning and ending for most viewers with a satisfyingly cute Volkswagen ad, in which a child in a Darth Vader costume stomps around the house and tries to use the Force, to little avail, except when he remote-starts his father's Passat in the driveway.

All night long, viewers kept tweeting and otherwise remarking that this was their favorite ad. What? It has no bimbos, no tools, no misogyny, nobody being hurled through plate-glass windows! It's just a kid in a Darth Vader costume. But that's the beauty of it - some years, the best "event" commercials just tell a brief and relatable story, with the careful use of a celebrity (in this case, the Dark Lord of the Sith and his "Imperial March" soundtrack, which can't have been an inexpensive line item on VW's production budget).

Other highlights, at least from where my chip was dipped, included a love-blooms-in-dystopia ad for Motorola's Xoom tablet, an iPad competitor, which gave Apple a slight taste of its own Orwellian medicine; an Audi ad in which a pair of Monopoly-esque fat cats escape from prison; a Chevy Silverado ad in which a pickup becomes a ceaseless do-gooder in the Lassie mode; a Bridgestone tire ad in which a man frantically tries to prevent one of those dreaded, accidental "reply all" e-mail responses; a Budweiser ad in which a Wild West gunslinger leads the saloon in a "Tiny Dancer" singalong.

I puzzled over Chrysler's daring yet laughably pretentious ad about a Detroit rebirth, in which Eminem drives meaningfully though the Motor City. Tagline: "Imported from Detroit." It was a bold statement, delivered unconvincingly.

There were, of course, the requisite flops, groaners and wastes of everyone's time, and, given the pressure and cost, advertisers' money - such as GoDaddy's anticlimactic reveal that Joan Rivers is their new hot celeb, superimposing Rivers's head atop a buxom new body. A nation goes ick in unison. Also, Groupon hit a strangely tasteless note with two ads that start out seeming to be about one thing (lefty causes, such as whale extinction or Tibetan freedom) and then shift into a just-joshin' punchline - such as Timothy Hutton saying that Tibetans "still whip up an amazing fish curry!" which he, of course, is enjoying courtesy of a Groupon offer.

Halftime: The Black Eyed Peas - all well into their 30s now - descended on wires for a quick and uninspired robot-romp through their childlike pop oeuvre; songs that were written for people for whom there is no higher priority than to go to VIP nightclubs, which sort of makes the Peas the permanent house band for a dumbed-down America. Get it started, tonight's gonna be a good night, boom-boom-pow, and all that 2000s stuff. Some peevish sound tech perhaps switched off their microphones, but the light people really went for broke, dressing an audience of dancers up as glow-stick androids. When it came time to spell out LOVE, the V was a bit dim. Even when joined by Usher, the Peas' halftime show was too.

And because it's the Super Bowl, there was the constant reminder that gender warfare is and probably forever will be our society's permanent hurdle (racism having been largely vanquished from Super Bowl ads). Whether inside the thoughts of a young man on a first date ("I want to sleep with her, I want to sleep with her - I want her Pepsi Max, I want her Pepsi Max!") to the usual array of doofus men obsessing on boobs, beer and chips, it seems Super Bowl can survive only when it generalizes about the sexes. This year's ad lineup included the merest frisson of hetero-homo discomfort. Which is to say, did we really need to see that guy sucking Dorito dust off his co-worker's fingers?

On that subject, until Super Bowl rolls around, I tend to forget how much mutual Dorito dust-huffing occurs between pro sports, sponsors and network TV. Sunday was the perfect expression of the Murdochian ideal - a glimpse of the News Corp.'s wiring behind the glitz. There were so many ads for Fox TV shows, and an ad during halftime for the Daily, Murdoch's new iPad-only newspaper.

Curiously, for everyone involved, Fox nabbed a 15-minute pregame interview with President Obama, conducted by Bill O'Reilly. Rushing through some back-and-forth on Egypt and health care, the interview played to both men's strengths: Obama, prepared and impenetrable; O'Reilly, annoyed and impenetrable - and eager to swat at the president's every answer.

Obama was asked what the worst part of his job is, and he nimbly answered that it was having to wear a suit on Super Bowl Sunday. (And, sort of implied, do a TV interview.)

"Does it disturb you that so many people hate you?" O'Reilly asked. "No, I mean, it's a serious question."

"The truth is . . . the people who dislike you don't know you," Obama replied.

"They hate you," O'Reilly said.

Later, after a discussion of how the president would watch the game, O'Reilly said: "I enjoyed talking to you. I disagree with you sometimes. I hope you think I'm fair to you, I try to be. But I wish you well in the next two years."

Obama did respond to that ("Bill, it's always a pleasure. I enjoyed it.") but in the milliseconds before he said it, he blinked a couple of times, in a telling way. It was just another Super Bowl commercial, after all, two men using the world's most precious airtime to sell us two brands of the same kind of thing, and everyone watching and waiting for the blow to the head with a beer bottle, an explosion of Dorito dust or the E-Trade baby to supply the punchline.

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