Super Bowl 2013, Sandy Hook and What We Learned Sunday Night

What do Super Bowl ads say about where we are as an industry and country?

February 4, 2013, 10:04 AM

Feb. 4, 2013 — -- The object of advertising is to attract attention to a product, business or service by the use of paid announcements. As a profession it vacillates between being a deep and wide industry where there is always something new to learn and there is no limit to the creativity exhibited, and an industry devoid of moral boundaries or tact and bereft of any ability to filter a good idea from a bad idea.

In short, advertising mirrors society in such a precise way it is sometimes a pleasure to watch and sometimes excruciatingly painful. The late William L. Rathje was a professor of anthropology at the University of Arizona, who studied consumerism, demographics and consumption habits by excavating landfills. He later wrote a book called "Rubbish: The Archeology of Garbage." Rathje had to don protective clothing, get permits, plan and rent equipment; all I needed to do to get a great glimpse of exactly where we are as consumers was to observe the Super Bowl last night and its surrounding circus.

Full Coverage: Super Bowl 2013

Jennifer Hudson sang America the Beautiful, flanked by the Sandy Hook Elementary School, both touched by senseless violence. Hudson's mother, brother and nephew were murdered in 2008 and the Sandy Hook shootings are still fresh in our minds. By the second quarter, the teams were literally throwing punches on the field. Ravens cornerback Cary Williams even shoved the referee with two hands. It made me wonder if we were helping the Sandy Hook kids by sending them to the game or just trying to make ourselves feel better by trying to package our problems and put a bow on them. So, what does this have to do with the commercials?

Well, everything started with the GoDaddy spot where actor Jesse Heiman open mouthed kisses supermodel Bar Rafaeli (the camera closes in for a sound-designed, graphic confirmation). The spot was shown during the Super Bowl and immediately after.

Read more: Super Bowl Commercial Highlights

I cannot recall a single word that was said about the product and certainly do not have a more favorable opinion about it after the spot. I believe, however, that the strategy that led to the spot has more to do with the fact GoDaddy feels the need to outdo themselves from previous years than anything to do with the product or service. And that's my overall impression, the desperation that ensues after you have written a check averaging $3.8 million, forces you outside of the rigor of planning and targeting and pushes you head first into entertainment and sensationalism.

Watch: The Super Bowl Commercial You Didn't See

The brands represented last night were driven by the prime directive of cutting through the clutter and being noticed. So we had Volkswagen borrowing a culture that has nothing to do with its brand, Mio Fit betting the farm and losing with Tracy Morgan, Calvin Klein trying to entice a family audience with soft porn, Kia trying to sell cars by having a female robot beat a man up, Psy singing a bastardized version of his song Gangnam Style while riding a giant pistachio and Jeep, Chrysler Dodge preaching to us alternately with the voice of New Age priestess Oprah and the late right wing apologist Paul Harvey while showing us scenes of soldiers reuniting with families and farmers working the land that tug at your heartstrings in spite of the fact that you know you are being led to the slaughterhouse of commercialism. First time Super Bowl advertiser Gildan's ad helped fill out the bottom of the barrel.

There were some good ads in there: I liked the NFL's Leon Sandcastle spot, Hyundai's Team, Oreo's Whisper Fight and Tide's Miracle Stain. And among the others there were spots that were serviceable even if not Super Bowl worthy like Dwayne Johnson's Milk Spot and Best Buy's spot with Amy Poehler.

But, back to the Garbology analogy.

The ad that best proves the theory that one can get a good picture of where we are right now as a country by careful examination of the Super Bowl commercials is: Mercedes. The big idea for a company that sells automobiles whose price tag (for an s-class) can eclipse $210,000 and whose brand is built on being the ultimate in engineering and luxury is to introduce a $29,000 car. That stretch feels to me similar to Volkswagen borrowing Jimmy Cliff and the Jamaican culture or Budweiser fashioning a man's lifelong relationship with a horse he raised to drinking an alcoholic beverage. You see the point, we are reaching. The Great Recession, gun violence, changing weather patterns, contentious politics have scared us. The soft economy has us off our game. We need a win, we are desperate to win. So we are all over the place, maybe even grabbing at straws a bit.

I was explaining the nuances of the game to my wife as we watched. Before the whistle blew, I correctly identified illegal procedure, off-sides and unnecessary roughness. In the fourth quarter I also correctly identified holding as Michael Crabtree ran into the end zone. I then had to try and explain to her while the rules didn't necessary apply on that call because the game was on the line and the referees under those circumstances can choose not to follow the letter of the law. As I was talking, I realized that I was describing not just the game but the events surrounding the game, the advertising and more.

This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.

Larry D. Woodard is CEO of Graham Stanley Advertising and the co-author of the book, "Advertising as a Branding Tool."

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