Monday, January 29, 2007

The Super Bowl Spectacle is About to Descend Upon Us

I read this week that "If people don’t watch the Super Bowl"…"they are not part of the American culture." This statement gave me pause to considerjust what is American culture and is there even such a thing as one American culture. Before addressing those issues, I want to point out that just about half the U.S. population views the game; gender is split 60/40 in favor of males. The Super Bowl is not only an American festival, but it is a media spectacle. Media spectacles like the Super Bowl become a means for the mainstream media, which are beholden to mainstream corporate interests, to distract citizens from the issues that really affect us. As a spectacle, therefore, the Super Bowl takes us away not only from the mundane quality of everyday life, but also distracts us from the serious political issues of the day. Even the Army Bowl, which this year was sponsored by Bell Helicopter, provided a way to combine--and therefore integrate--the experience of sports and war. I offer this brief critique as an introduction to the ways in which ideology is managed in American society. It is through spectacles like the Super Bowl that we celebrate commercialism. By the way, Christmas and several other religious holidays have been elevated to the level of spectacle. In the end, I’m wondering where are the other 160 million citizens of the United States, many of whom may be elderly or below the age where they are likely to be interested in the spectacle of sport. If the elderly and very young are not part of American culture, who else isn’t a part of it? And, even for half the country that does engage with this spectacle, it seems to me the nature of their engagement is quite varied: some people come together to watch the game (with varying degrees of interest depending on the teams that are playing), others watch for the commercials, others may not watch at all, but want to participate in the intimacy of the celebrations which themselves will vary greatly depending on age, income, ethnicity, among other factors. Is there one American culture? I think not. If you don’t participate in the Super Bowl celebration, don’t feel bad, as I maintain you can still keep your membership card in American culture. Invariably, even for those who watch, the game is likely to be disappointing, and in studies following the game, many people can’t even remember the products that were advertised, or worse, they confuse one product for another as in one study a respondent described a commercial for Doritos as being for Tostitos.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Attention getting cultural excess

What do Clearblue Easy pregnancy testing kit and the Philips Bodygroom have in common? They are both examples of culture excess. We normally associate this term with taking culture to the edge of acceptability or beyond: the new film starring Dakota Fanning is an example out of pop culture; so is Borat. In marketing, I associate the term cultural excess with products like the Burger King Texas Double Whopper, and the Hummer SUV, among many other products that are inherently excessive. This notion of culture excess is associated with a postmodern culture in which products are a reflection of an image that may symbolize something greater than the product per se - a hamburger or a car. Marketers like Clearblue and Philips adapt this postmodern approach to fit their own needs. The Clearblue Easy viral spot (which you can find on has a number of masculine markers, even though the product--one would think--is directed toward a female audience. What do I mean by masculine markers? For one, excuse my frankness, but the pee stream in the commercial is more guy-like as it takes accurate aim at the Clearblue Easy pregnancy testing device; something women tell me is not typical of the way in which women urinate. In other words: guys take aim; women merely pee. And because of the “Star Wars” quality of the visual and the “movie trailer” announcer’s booming voice over, this ad is gendered toward the masculine. And, so we might expect that it is male YouTubers that will circulate this ad; their wives and girlfriends are likely to be secondary receivers of the message. Furthermore, I sense a certain infantile anger at work behind this ad if for no other reason then peeing as a public act is considered lewd behavior (excessive). Indeed in most places (Amsterdam not withstanding) it’s illegal. Peeing in a commercial, a public act, may be considered an infantile way in which to gain attention. Ah ha! Attention - gaining and maintaining it. That’s the ticket to successful advertising for a distracted generation.

In the Philips Bodygroom viral spot, when male viewers see themselves as a reflection of what appears on the screen, such depictions raise questions regarding what it means to be a man. Making masculine gender identity problematic--in other words, forcing male viewers to question who they are--is a way for advertisers to nudge male consumers in the direction of the advertisement’s message. Grooming one’s body--feminizing the male body--may be a way in which a male may recoup his lost social standing - depending on the type of male viewer one is talking about. I say this because a hyper-masculine male is likely to reject or psychologically deflect such images and the message of the advertisement. If you think of masculine gender identity as points on a continuum--with the hyper-masculine male at one end, and the feminine male at the other--you can begin to locate the type of male to which this ad might appeal. I have been writing about this issue (the depiction of masculine gender identity) for several years now. In particular I have been focusing on the depiction of men as wolves (Honda, Quiznos), the depiction of men as caveman (GEICO, FedEx), and the depiction of men caught in public with their pants down (the list is too long). Each of these advertisements represents in its own way cultural excess. Cultural excess encourges consumer participation as these ads are distributed virally through

Friday, January 12, 2007

User-generated Super Bowl Ads

The consumer-generated advertising--what I have been calling participatory advertising--lends an air of authenticity to the commercial form which has to a great extent lost its ability to gain and maintain consumer attention. During the holidays, BMW utilized an older video they found in a commercial; this represents a hybrid form. Other marketers haven’t been quite as successful with consumer-generated advertising. Chevy’s Tahoe and Wal-Mart are among them. Anheuser-Busch will launch its own at this year’s Super Bowl. It will feature videos created by Budweiser that consumers willing to click on the website can view. Yesterday, the NFL announced the winner of its consumer-generated Super Bowl ad contest featured on the website pictured here. Some advertising pundits claim this newer form--I’m not convinced it really is all that new--represents the loss of control on the part of ad agencies. As I reported in my earlier post, allowing consumers to become producers within this system of symbolic consumption is nothing more than a negotiation between the advertiser and the consumer; a way to engage core consumers utilizing a newer approach based on Web 2.0 social networking. But make no mistake; advertisers are not really giving up control, only trying to management the process and the outcome to their advantage. That’s the way advertising has always worked (or not). The consumer-generated advertisements appearing on the Super Bowl are special because of the size of the audience that will see them and the amount of money advertisers are willing to plunk down to have them shown. Just like last year’s ads and the year before, the marketers are only trying to break through the clutter and sustain the amplitude of the commercial beyond its 30 second appearance on television. In other words, “water-cooler” talk is a major objective - ads that get talked about the next day and beyond are considered effective. These consumer genderated ads will make their way onto where they will further be circulated by Bloggers, among others. What media convergence provides advertisers is an extended opportunity for consumers to experience the advertisements, if those consumer so choose.