If you want to gauge the American public sentiment at any given moment, look no further than its advertising. Since most brands want to please the vast majority of Americans, millions and millions of dollars are spent researching, focus-grouping, and refining marketing messages for optimal palatability. For example, the lack of gays in mainstream advertising shows that homosexuality has not yet reached near-universal palatability, while interracial couples — much more accepted — abound in advertising. With over 100 million Americans watching at any given time, and with a cost of $4 million per 30-second slot, Super Bowl spots are the ultimate advertising representation of how we feel.
Each year has big ads. Among the rampant super-fun 30-second ads are a few that seem to define a tone and a theme. These are usually long spots; for example, the "Halftime in America" Chrysler 2-minute spot, or multiple spots over the course of the game that are thematically linked, like the "Great Times Are Waiting" Budweiser spots, in particular the "End of Prohibition." Both of these aired last year, and both conveyed a "rebirth" theme: a rebirth of Detroit for Chrysler, and a rebirth of the spirit of American fun for Budweiser. This year, the spots that defined the tone and theme were: the "NFL Evolution" ad series, the Jeep and Ram 2-minute spots, and the Samsung 2-minute commercial. While the Ram spot had its moments, the overall impression was clear: these advertisers did not have much to say, and often were blatantly hypocritical.
Let's start with the lack of substance. We can see this in two major corporations backing down from bold stands that they took last year. In 2012, Samsung aired a 60-second attack ad aimed directly at the Apple cult mentality. Chrysler aired its second annual Detroit-themed 2-minute commercial, defending a city that received a controversial government bailout.
This year's Samsung ad, while greatly entertaining, told us shockingly little about the phone, minus the fact that you can (pretend to) look up movie reviews on it and draw on a picture of your friend's face. If you're going to buy 2 minutes of Super Bowl time, you've gotta say something.
I will admit that the Ram spot is beautifully crafted, and will probably win many awards, despite the fact that it was a complete rip-off. The rip-off isn't my issue with it. My issue with these two ads is that they are rallying behind the two least controversial groups imaginable: veterans and farmers. While I applaud veterans and farmers both, espousing their merits does not really advance any substantive message.
Now onto the hypocrisy. My first accusation goes against Jeep. At 2 minutes in length, that commercial cost somewhere in the range of $16 million. And that's just the media buy. We can probably tack on a couple million more for production costs. That's a lot of money to tell us about how much they support veterans. Why is it, then, that your company deems a $50,000 donation to veterans' causes worth of a press release? To be fair, Jeep does have a history of helping veterans and active military. Jeep held a "Hero Summit" this past November in Washington, D.C., to recognize inspirational stories from our troops. They also currently offer a $500 bonus cash offer to any veteran buying a Jeep vehicle. The question is not whether Jeep supports the military: it does. The question is whether they can justify an $18 million commercial to tell us about how they support the military, when the amount of money they actually spend supporting the military is probably smaller than that. I'll leave you to decide.
My second accusation of hypocrisy belongs to the NFL. This is what John Harbaugh, coach of the champion Baltimore Ravens, had to say about a hit in the AFC Championship game that left Stevan Ridley with a concussion:
“That was the turning point of the game,” John Harbaugh said. “That was the turning point of the football game there on the 40-yard-line. It was just a tremendous hit. It was football at its finest. It was Bernard Pollard making a great physical tackle — just as good a tackle as you’re ever going to see in football right there. That just probably turned the game around right there.”
This quote shows the culture of football is what is actually most damaging to player health. Currently, NFL rules implicitly encourage that sort of play. Think of the moment when a receiver catches the ball but has not attained possession: the job of an incoming safety is to hit the receiver as hard as possible to make him drop the ball. The helmet-to-helmet rules the NFL recently passed are merely a Band-Aid on a much larger wound. I'm not here to discuss the ethics of football safety. I'm just here to point out that showing me so many "NFL Evolution" ads that I lose count of them is hypocritical. Just like Jeep should not buy a massive bullhorn to tout a minor good deed, the NFL should not pat itself on the back for making football a safe sport. It simply is not.
At the end of the day, marketers are under no obligation to provide advertising of substance or to ensure the spirit of their ads matches the content of their actions. But given the massive amount of time, energy, and money put into those ads by Samsung, the NFL, Jeep, and Ram, it's a shame that Ram is probably the only one of those brands I'll walk away feeling good about. Does this insubstantial and hypocritical advertising mean that we as a public are insubstantial and hypocritical? Again, I'll let you decide.