The Tao of Super BowlBy Kevin Nabipour
The Super Bowl is a spectacularly American event. No doubt about it. Last night’s version, the 51st installment, was particularly so, and not just because of the Patriots’ improbable, yet seemingly predestined, come-from-behind win.
With each passing year, it is this game and everything that surrounds it that stands uniquely apart as the signature American cultural moment. As cliché as it is to suggest greater contextual meaning in every commercial, play call, and outcome, it’s become more glaring, and to some, pretty unnerving. Today’s fractured viewing environment has allowed annual live events like the Super Bowl to become a reflection of a public’s state of consciousness and conscience and no other spectacle can elevate all the trappings of the American myth quite like it. Here are three observations that made this year’s Super Bowl perhaps the most relevant of any before it.
Madison Avenue vs. Hollywood: Competing Themes of Unity and Apocalypse
The advertising industry still celebrates the Super Bowl as the premium media vehicle to carry a brand’s message to the largest possible audience and the opportunity to be your most audacious. Viewers still expect a lot from commercials and still acknowledge the social currency of having seen them.
Recently, brands have been pilloried for being too maudlin or bleak. But this year’s ads from brands like Anheuser Busch, Audi, Airbnb, Coca-Cola, and standout first-timer 84 Lumber (this year’s most affecting offering) revealed a more sentimental and well-forged set of patriotic narratives that were unmistakably political and forged deeply in the theme of unity. Immigration and the refugee crisis, equal pay, freedom of religion, America as a land of opportunity; once traditional but now seemingly progressive themes that under normal circumstances would be risky for brands to engage – but are especially more so in an environment where a Trump tweet assault is always lurking – were common. In fact, the prolific output of so many ads devoted to these weighty issues carried a feeling that made viewing contributions from Avocados From Mexico, Mr. Clean, and T-Mobile featuring Justin Bieber seem small and silly. More and more, the Super Bowl seems to be a moment to have an adult conversation, for brands that have powerful beliefs and storytelling prowess to grow up and grow into a conversation that goes beyond the features, functions, and benefits of any individual products.
While there’s certainly a lot to cheer here, the problem for companies may still be that we exist in clashing visions of the American ideal, and it’s not yet clear how themes that at one point felt unquestionably American will resonate with audiences.
Conversely, Hollywood chose to be bleak. It felt like every film teaser – many of which are installments in a well-known fantasy series (again, a state of our times) – demonstrated an apocalyptic and chaos-ravaged existence. Transformer robots, comic superheroes, even pirates, survive in and contend with a world of anarchy. Hollywood has been critical of the ascendance and leadership of President Trump, to no surprise, and what it sees before us is a fearful planet on the precipice of destruction. The goal wasn’t to engage the desensitized among us to more hyper-realized fare, to say “escape with me into this world.” What it seemed to suggest is all is lost.
Halftime as Female Empowerment
For years, Lady Gaga has told us it’s OK to be you. Love your weirdness, accept it, be joyful. Last night she followed a recent line of powerful female pop performers like Beyoncé, Katy Perry, and Madonna, among others, to own the halftime in the country’s most masculine sport. It’s no secret the NFL has pivoted its growth strategy to include women and families, and the greatest gesture to that fact is the primetime placement for the year’s most sought-after timeslot. In any other year, Gaga would have just been the latest, albeit among the most daring and inclusive, female performer to occupy this space.
But in Trumpland, it’s yet another eagerly anticipated moment for a powerful female voice to make a statement (hi Meryl!). Gaga’s version included a medley that started with Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land,” sung atop the stadium’s roof in front of an endless sky. With those words, Gaga wanted everyone to feel safe, choosing not to overly politicize the moment, and then promptly jumped off the roof into the air like a futuristic eagle, soaring and flipping, in what else, but heeled boots and a tight dress.
The Familiar Comeback
For most of the game, the narratives that existed beyond the field were much more compelling. Then, the fourth quarter happened and it ended pretty much how we expected. Tom Brady won, again, and rode off and up the podium as the most decorated quarterback in NFL history. But something even more of the moment existed in the quarterback’s incredible turnaround performance.
Brady, like President Trump, has used the cult of personality to dodge the taint of a scandal (what Trump is to tax returns, Brady is to Deflategate) and emerge victorious. That Brady is a supporter of Trump merely confirms a parallel: a powerful figure who never admits fault, avoids a true comeuppance, wins in spectacular fashion. That it comes against the Atlanta Falcons, a predominantly African American team from a predominantly African American city, adds another layer of unease that reflects the uncomfortable reality of our times.
Tom Brady is a remarkable player with both underappreciated athletic gifts and a legendary resolve to win that is once in a generation. His overcoming a four-game suspension to lead a team that on the surface had less imposing talent than previous Patriots teams to a historic Super Bowl victory – and with the knowledge of an ailing mother in attendance – should have been the most American of stories. To many it was, just in a different way.
This blog is part of an ongoing series that examines complex and consequential cultural moments from various perspectives within Allison+Partners’ walls. Kevin Nabipour is the head of Content Strategies for Allison+Partners.