It’s Super Bowl time again. As this column is written, no one has a clue which teams will be playing. But we all know it doesn’t matter. The sporting event now serves only to bookend the half-time show and interrupt the ads. In fact, the National Football League even offers post-game opportunities to view the ads for people who want a rerun. The triumph of marketing over substance is one of the main ways in which the Super Bowl has come to embody and celebrate the true character of American society.
At this point, our American lives exist mainly to provide a context for advertising. It’s on our clothes, in our children’s schoolrooms, on the back of our cars, beaming at us in the gas station and supermarket, playing over the radio, droning from the television, popping out of our computers. And always the message is the same: “Define yourself by purchasing something.”
The triumph of advertising in American culture is so complete that commercials are now viewed as a sort of alternative medium for artistic expression and social messages. For instance, obscure indie-rock bands that could never get a break on the radio can place their songs in a Volkswagen commercial. The use of social uplift to sweeten the ad-man’s pitch is as old as Coke’s “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing” and those Benetton “United Colors” ads of decades past, and it’s as recent as the Latino-themed “hybrid” ads that simultaneously pitched the 2006 Toyota Prius and the virtues of multiculturalism.