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Strange Days, Indeed: Notes on Identity and the Super Bowl Commercials

The Super Bowl commercials have fairly become a show in itself. They are so notoriously expensive and anticipated, that they are given a kind of unspoken status of supremacy; they are the crème de la crème of advertising—the fanciest debutantes at the ball. Looking over the comprehensive archive of these commercials at the Spike website, in many ways, there are no surprises.

The various advertisers are the big names: Coca Cola, AT&T, Frito Lay, Ford, Gatorade, General Motors, etc. Looking at the thumbnail views of the commercials from different years, it is clear the target audience is men; there are images of two women mud wrestling, Jessica Simpson holding a pizza, football players holding bottles. Again, no surprises.

I've been saving the Alec Baldwin Hulu commercial for a while. Although I didn't originally view it in context while watching the Super Bowl, I learned of its gamey origin and exalted status after googling it. Its in-your-face smugness, overt self awareness, and general culture-mocking, ironic, and hyper sarcasm are the ultimate of postmodern and Gen X affectations.

In the Hulu commercial, we not only have the pretty straightforward notion that television is "bad for you," there is the more esoteric/less public idea of a conspiracy behind such a notion—an actual plan to liquefy the brains of humans, by a human-disguised, alien race. The alien outrageousness of course, is the ironic laugh factor. David Icke, woo-woos, har, har.

The realistic, middle ground that this silly farce is based on however, might be no laughing matter. It's hard to argue against an organized, covert corporate plan to engage the minds, attention, and favors of people in the distractions that media and television offer. It is used as an agent of control, and we laugh at the Alec Baldwin/ alien because this commercial dares to say it out loud. The commercial (which is essentially selling ‘television' and more commercials on the internet—keep in mind that because of the digital switchover, there is really no such thing as television anymore anyway) becomes our ally because it's making fun of itself—the enemy of our freethinking minds.

It's really quite brilliant. Hulu is not going to rot your brain; it is going to "rot your brain." Wink, wink, nudge, nudge. Buy me because I'm bad-in-quotation-marks for you. Everything's a safe replica to partake of if those all important quote marks are present to insure its irony and unreality.

My original intention with the Hulu commercial was to deconstruct the esoteric hell out of it, especially after I found a magazine ad of an Always maxipad slapped on a tarot card. I began thinking about how occult and esoteric imagery is appropriated to sell things. Although, after viewing the other commercials that aired during this year's super bowl, my fascination with the Hulu commercial has taken another turn.

Making use of anthropomorphism, which is found aplenty in this year's slew of Super Bowl commercials, the Super bowl XLIII itself is 43**, making it a member of Generation X (those born between 1961-1981.) The devil-child hybrid has been applied to Gen X in general. Many babies and children depicted in films that came out as Gen Xers were infants, were less than fully human, evil, and hybrid in nature: Rosemary's Baby, The Omen, The Exorcist.

Although it may seem I'm making too much of it, it doesn't seem such a stretch to consider that the specific cultural myths, stories, and dialogues that develop regarding children during a set period can be seen to reflect an attitude toward them—it's rather the entire dynamic. So, from the beginning, Generation X had issues of identity.

Also, the first widely reported case of reproductive oriented drama between aliens and humans came about with the Betty and Barney Hill case in 1964. The human-alien hybrid has become one of the most developed, central, and detailed aspects of the UFO narratives. The Hulu commercial during the Super Bowl, in which a human is really an alien in disguise, seems fitting.

There are several anthropomorphic commercials during Super Bowl XLIII. There is a trash-talking bouquet of bad flowers via Teleflora, a talking Mr. Potato Head couple for Bridgestone, SoBe Lizards, and a highbrow koala at careerbuilder.com. Ok, such things are not rare in commercials, but it was a virtual onslaught, and some of these portrayals featured characters actually morphing into non-human creatures, further suggesting deep issues with identity.

Castrol's Grease Monkeys commercial has a man named Ronnie making out with a chimp after a band of them showed up to take care of his car with Castrol, and made him their king. In a Doritos commercial, a policeman is magically turned into a small monkey when a wish is made by a man whose wishes are granted each time he bites into a chip. What is it with all the monkeys? Could it have something to do with a general sense of human evolution, albeit regressive?

Another commercial might provide some insight. In a Coca-Cola commercial called Avatar, a man strolls through a city, encountering everywhere people who are checked out of the real world and into a virtual one—a mother absent mindedly pushes her child on a swing while texting, a zombie lumbers through the street holding a cell phone, a superhero sits on stairs with a laptop.

The melding of the two worlds, the real and virtual, is interesting. That an altered physical appearance, from human to cartoon-like avatar, is chosen to convey this melding, is even more interesting. This is the first commercial I have seen that openly yet subtly addresses the notion outright that our concept of reality—of communication, space, and body is changing.

Getting back to that generational theme, there are several commercials which address the idea directly, and there's a large sense of unity going on within these. In an Audi commercial, actor Jason Statham is involved in a time-warping car chase in different decades/different Audis. In a Pepsi commercial, iconic film and music moments from different generations are shown on split screen, showing similarities; Jack Black and John Belushi rock on, and there's "…A mashup with Bob Dylan [and will.i.am.], whose "Forever Young" provides the soundtrack, assures baby boomers that they still enjoy their God-given right never to be considered old."*

If all these commercials can be seen as a single story, what is it? Perhaps, as the much hyped 2012 approaches, it could be seen as part of "the beginning of the end" of our fin de siècle mania, in which there is a sense that every generation of us is, can, or should stand as one, as our collective identity—what it means to be human and how we define such-- promises to evolve in whatever way it will.

Sources and Notes:

To view the Super Bowl commercials, see the Spike website www.spike.com/superbowl/18372

* The Best and Worst Super Bowl Commercials

** Wikipedia states that the first Super Bowl was held in 1967. That would seemingly make it 42 years old. I'm sure there's a reason for the discrepancy, but I'm going with its Roman numerals, which indicate this last game was the 43rd. In either case, it still easily lies within Generation X parameters.

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