The Funhouse Mirror

It’s a red-letter date for curmudgeonhood: February 2, 2014. Super Bowl Sunday. If there is any more glaring, garish advertisement for all that is wrong with America than the carnival of excess known as the Super Bowl, I don’t know what it is. Posturing, shameless self-promotion, violence, lowest-common-denominator marketing, and constant, pervasive, all-consuming commercialism—it’s got it all! The Super Bowl is the Texas of sporting events: everything is Big. Bigger than everything else. Bigger than it needs to be. And not about to let you forget it.

Start with the scheduling. In a sport in which teams only play one game a week, a circumstance that lends itself to microscopic “analysis” and criticism by angst-ridden fans and sports radio loudmouths for a full week after every contest, the Super Bowl provides TWO weeks for the nonstop commentary-and-hype machine to fire up all eight cylinders. Teams don’t need two weeks to prepare for the game. Teams don’t want two weeks to prepare for the game. All the extra week does is give coaches seven more days to develop ulcers, players seven more days to get into trouble or lose focus, and the loudmouths on TV, the radio, and the Interwebs seven more days to stretch for stories to cover and controversies to discuss. Even if they have to invent the controversies so they can discuss them.

Of course, it also gives the NFL and its sponsors seven more days to hawk their wares, which is undoubtedly the point. This brings us to one of the most awful, culture-destroying features of the Super Bowl: consumerism. In that annoying self-referential way that characterizes so much of 21st century America, it has become axiomatic that people are to watch the Super Bowl not just for the game, but for the commercials. Advertisers pay ridiculous sums of money for the privilege of running a spot during the game, because they are practically guaranteed an audience of more than a billion people. They then pay ridiculous sums of money to create what they hope will be a memorable commercial that will get positive mention on Twitter, Buzzfeed, and Reddit. From high-tech graphics to celebrity cameos to feature film-style editing and action shots, these companies shell out a lot of green to try to get us to buy their stuff.

That’s all well and good, I suppose. It’s a free country, and people and corporations (which are really not people, my friend) have the right to spend their money any way they choose, and the NFL and Fox or CBS or whoever is carrying the game in a given year have the right to set their ad rates as high as the market will bear. After all, as Don Barzini observes in The Godfather, they are not communists.

It is troubling, however, just how good at this game the advertisers have become, and just how quietly—even willingly—we the viewing and buying public have learned to go along with their program. Like lambs to the slaughter, one might say. Take, for example, a news story I heard a few days before the Big Spectacle in East Rutherford. It had to do with new technology that allows companies to detect when your phone or other “mobile device” is in the vicinity of their store and send you targeted ads to get you to go there and buy stuff. You have the right to opt out of this, but you can be sure the advertisers will not make that a large part of their ad copy. The burden of opting out is upon the consumer. If we do not remain vigilant and protective of our privacy, we will soon be reduced to little more than a walking target for some huckster with an IP address and a mobile app.

The same or another story described a new tactic the Super Bowl advertisers have come up with: online teasers for their gameday commercials. The discerning consumer could go to the company’s web site to get behind-the-scenes information about their upcoming commercial spots. The implication, of course, was that those who have this inside scoop would be the hippest, smartest, most in-the-know kids on the block. But when you stop and think about it for just a second, you realize you’re being suckered. They are appealing to your vanity and your desire to be ahead of the curve, in order to SELL YOU MORE STUFF. That’s it. That’s the bottom line. It’s a pathetically transparent ploy, but they are counting on there being enough people out there dumb or gullible enough to make it worth their while. Sadly, they are right.

There is so much more to say about the Super Bowl as the funhouse mirror of our culture, but this post is already way long, so the rest will have to wait. Never fear, though, gentle reader. I will be back with more grumblings soon.