What the 2016 Super Bowl Commercials Tell Us About Ourselves

During the week following the Super Bowl, more talked about than the actual outcome of the game are the commercials. DVRs whirr excitedly as viewers break down their favorites. Water coolers bubble with solidarity and incredulity as coworkers exchange their wins/losses. Online sites quickly produce best and worst lists, providing only a slightly-more reflective alternative to the real-time reaction on Twitter. Particularly if you have no vested rooting interest in the game or if the football action is lackluster (as it was on Sunday), commercials make the Super Bowl fun. Given the importance of Super Bowl commercials within the advertising industry and given the advertising industry’s profound interest into human psychology, we ought to expect that the Super Bowl commercials reveal telling information about who we are.

Here are five insights can we glean from the ads during Super Bowl 50.

We love celebrities

Celebrities as advertisers-in-chief is nothing new. It is a time-tested strategy. Some trace celebrity endorsement back as far as the mid 1800s, when Wedgwood china was marketed by association to the royal court. More recently, movie stars and athletes have lent their imprimatur to cigarettes, coffee-makers, and pretty much any other good or service.

But the 2016 Super Bowl ads show a near obsessive dependence on celebrity faces and voices to sell goods. Alec Baldwin brought along a retinue of B-list celebrities to hawk the Amazon Echo. Kia conceived of the (Christopher) Walken Closet and called their new sedan “the world’s most exciting pair of socks.” Drake patiently endured really bad production edits from mobile phone suits.

What this reveals, of course, is that we are less interested in what a product does or how it works, and more concerned with who is associated with it. We are people made cool by association, even an association as ephemeral as a celebrity endorsement.

We take great pride in America

On the day when an estimated 112 million people watched the championship of the quintessentially American sport, several ads relied on nationalistic pride to differentiate their products. These ads tap into a larger cultural reality, namely the wedding of football with nationalism and militarism. Calvin College philosopher Jamie Smith has observed the particular intertwining of football and the military on the national holiday ofThanksgiving: “[I]f we are thankful for America, we're thankful to the military who, proverbially, "protect our freedom, " "keep us free,”… And what are we free for? Well, to shop.”

During an election cycle when we are hearing a lot about “making America great again” (along with all sorts of other punditry), these commercials insists on American exceptionalism. Rocket Mortgage identified the “power of America itself” as buying. Similarly, WeatherTech--an otherwise nondescript company, unknown to many of us--sought to establish its brand around “made in America”. America—at its core—is business, especially the business of buying and selling. If there is one thing that the entire edifice of Super Bowl commercials reinforces, it is our unmitigated belief in the power of capitalism.

A subset of this pride in America category were several ads that leveraged classic American Rock and Roll to sell their brands. Van Halen, Aerosmith, Queen, and David Bowie were all used to invoke another great American contribution and source of pride.

We love the absurd

Let’s call this the WesAndersonifictaion of advertising. The bizarre, the outlandish, the unimaginable are used to sell product. But what happens when brands begin trying to out-absurd one another? #puppymonkeybaby, that’s what. As ridiculous as Mountain Dew’s ad was, it, perhaps more than any other, was the ad that leaves an indelible mark from Super Bowl 50. It was the ad my children woke up repeating, not because it was particularly clever or thoughtful or moving. But because it was absurd. Who can resist a gyrating #puppymonkeybaby?

There were others like it, of course: The Butterfingers ad. The apartments.com spot filled with strange juxtapositions; none stranger than George Washington and Lil Wayne. The Jack in the Box commercial replete with screeching Eagle (see great pride in America, above). And, of course, the Avocados from Mexico spot which piled absurd idea upon absurd idea, with no real connection to avocados, be they from Mexico or any other country.

We long for adventure

Perhaps only slightly more accurately, we long to be people who appear to be adventurous. I often make a distinction between our ideal selves (who we want ourselves to be) and our real selves (who we actually are). This category of ads plays off that dissonance.

Our idealized longing for adventure was leveraged by a variety of commercials including those for: GoPro, Fitbit, Marmot, showing frenetic activities in various exotic locales. All of this while we watched comfortably from our couches and ate chips for dinner.

Even car commercials tapped this impulse. We watched professional drivers on closed courses driving cars in ways that very few ever have or ever will. But oh that we could! Stretching the impulse to its farthest point, driving the Audi R8 was connected to the ultimate adventure of space travel.

This trope of ads was humorously subverted by Toyota’s Prius commercial—thought, by some, to be the best ad of the night. This ad featuring four very quotidian bank robbers using a Prius as a getaway car, turned adventure on its head by placing a most sensible car at the center of a thrilling (if not exactly high speed) chase.

We tend towards outrage

One of the most talked about ads from Sunday was the Doritos Ultrasound commercial. It reveals much about ourselves. The ad, created by an Australian filmmaker for about $2,000, was part of Doritos Crash the Super Bowl contest. Its crowd-sourced origin reveals that ours is an age where everyone is a creative. The fact that a homemade, low budget ad could outperform commercials from big agencies indicates the power of our YouTube moment where everyone is a director and producer.

But there’s more. The Doritos ad received additional attention because it was slammed on Twitter, almost immediately, by the NAARL (an abortion rights group). This Twitter-bashing, in turn, led to backlash from various groups. The response and backlash reveals that we tend towards outrage. Even a humorous 30-second spot during the Super Bowl is grist for outrage. An element not part of the central message of the commercial became the basis for grinding one’s own axe.*

But as we enter further into the Doritos kerfuffle, it only reveals more about who we are. It reveals that we value life. We resonate (naturally) with an expectant couple viewing an ultrasound. While we may take umbrage at the stereotypical ‘slobby Dad’ and ‘shrewish wife’ in the commercial, there is no surprise at the scene of parents eagerly viewing their child in ultrasound. As Dr. Russell Moore helpfully explained on his blog, “The abortion lobby didn’t want viewers to see on television what every expectant mother can see in a sonogram—that the child within her is a growing human being, not just a blob of dark matter.”

So commercials become fuel (for whatever side) in a culture war. A war that tells us far more about ourselves than we often care to admit.

The whole scenario is eerily reminiscent of this 2010 ad featuring Tim Tebow, which also unexpectedly became fuel for outrage over supposed domestic violence.

(Read more thoughts on Super Bowl commercials...)