As a sociologist, how did you begin studying Super Bowl ads? Why are they important?
Another graduate student and I sort of fell into this project. After watching the Super Bowl in 2010 we both had this immediate reaction that the commercials that year were very strange and we wanted to take a closer look at what was going on. To do so, we went back and looked at all of the Super Bowl commercials from five years prior to 2010 and found that there was this clear shift in how masculinity was being represented and also a shift in the concerns companies were using the to sell their products.
Interesting. How was masculinity being portrayed?
In 2010, men were portrayed at being at this breaking point. Many commercials featured men who were disillusioned about problems in society or just angry about the world. This wasn’t the classic portrayal of masculinity—you drink the beer, you drive a really fast car, and all of the sudden this really attractive woman is interested in you. It also wasn’t what researchers call the “loveable losers” of the early 2000s—young guys hanging out, having a good time, and treating women like sex objects, but just ending up with each other and their beer. In fact, in 2010, you have all these commercials where the women are virtually gone.
Any memorable examples?
Take this Dockers commercial. Here you have guys wandering in a group, clearly lost in something that looks like an African savannah. They are disheveled in button-up shirts and white, tight underwear. But they are whistling and singing like they don’t have a care in the world, even though, as a viewer, we know they are facing impending doom. Then, at the end, it shifts to this tough, solitary man wearing Dockers and a t-shirt in-front of this brick wall as this deep voice says something like “It is time to wear The Pants.” And this type of reject the silliness and reclaim something that was lost story was told over and over in 2010.
So, commercials are like holding a mirror to what’s going on culturally.
Yes, commercials are an important cultural object that provides insight into bigger shifts happening in society. In a way, advertisers do a lot of the work for us. They use massive amounts of resources to conduct research to get into the mind of the consumer so that they know what will appeal to them. As a result, they have a really good idea about what’s going on in society. The year 2010 was really the height of the recession. The companies were trying to take advantage of the concern about the economy and the awareness that a lot of traditionally masculine jobs certainly weren’t coming back. This context matters. As sociologists we not only want to observe a pattern in society, but we want to understand why it’s happening. The patterns of masculinity portrayed in Super Bowl ads are one particularly compelling example of this.
"As sociologists we not only want to observe a pattern in society, but we want to understand why it’s happening."
Considering the current political climate, what do you predict for this year’s Super Bowl ads?
In general, sociologists are better at analyzing the past than predicting the future, but it’s my guess that companies are going to playing it safe. It’s so hard to pick up on cultural trends at this moment because the country seems so divided. Given the current climate, people will very be quick to see things that go against their values and political ideologies. My prediction is that most commercials will be more silly or fantasy-themed. Things like cartoon characters and dragons in magical worlds. People can’t be offended because it’s so removed from reality.
"Given the current climate, people will very be quick to see things that go against their values and political ideologies."
Is there any “safe” way for advertisers to address politics but avoid controversy?
It will be tough, but commercials that are patriotic and appeal to this idea of unity may be “safe.” Any ad that veers into politics has to be about celebrating America, which may be still controversial right now for some people. Advertisers are going to try not to take a side, since the country is divided right down the middle. The material to work with is limited, because every controversial topic came up during this election. Usually you can poke fun at something. Their best bet is to find areas that are far away from politics as possible. For example, celebrities making fun of themselves is usually safe.
There’s already been some controversy about a Budweiser ad, set to air during the Super Bowl, that depicts a young Adolphus Busch, the co-founder of Anheuser-Busch, as he arrives in the United States from Germany. In light of recent events, some people are saying the ad is pro-immigration. Was that Anheuser-Busch’s intent?
It’s likely not a statement about Trump’s stance on immigration. A lot of companies would have been running focus groups well before more recent tension. Budweiser likely thought this commercial would be uncontroversial; an immigrant comes over and lives out the American dream of starting a beer company. It’s celebrating our version of the American dream, which people usually get behind. They probably thought it was safe, and Budweiser doesn’t usually take political chances with their ads. But now, even the classic American story becomes controversial.