Please note: You're in the Britney Generation

Is it our memory that's going or Pepsi's?

Published February 5, 2002 8:00PM (EST)

How about that. For once the football game was as interesting as the commercials. Which meant that for almost four solid hours on Sunday, millions of viewers could not safely dash to the bathroom. The drawdown at approximately 10:10 p.m. EST must have made city reservoirs swirl like toilet bowls.

You can't ignore the ads anymore. They have their own Web site. Ever since director Ridley Scott's 1984 Macintosh spot, the commercials have been a major part of the annual Super Bowl show -- a telecast that draws approximately 800 million viewers worldwide. (One survey claims that 16 percent of viewers tune in only for the commercials, and 58 percent pay more attention to the ads than to the game.) Even as endless player interviews and game prognosticators droned on through the week, particular ads were generating their own pre-telecast hype. This year's advertisers included surprise newcomers -- the White House -- and surprising dropouts, like EDS, whose "Herding Cats" and "Running With the Squirrels" ads were previous Super Bowl standouts.

Receiving the most pre-game publicity was Pepsi's Britney Spears extravaganza -- actually a series of commercials featuring Spears in mock Pepsi ads from decades gone by. There is Spears as a 1958 soda fountain patron in suitably grainy black-and-white, Spears as a white Supreme circa '63, 1966 beach party Britney, 1970 hippie chick Britney and Britney as Robert Palmer in the 1989 "Simply Irresistible" video/Pepsi ad; the only "contemporary" one, a new millennium commercial. A commercial featuring snippets from all of the above was also aired during the game.

The period Pepsi jingles are real, but the ads themselves are modern reinterpretations of old TV commercials, and that may be the only interesting thing about them. Retro efforts like these always underline a certain truth: Eras are defined largely in hindsight. After all, who has the self-awareness (or clairvoyance) to understand exactly how a decade will be recalled?

Here, campy references to "American Bandstand" and "Beach Blanket Bingo" epitomize their times in a way that consumers of that day may not have appreciated. But the telling pop cultural touches are easily done in hindsight, and it has always been thus. Think of Ringo Starr's retro revival of the Johnny Burnette song "You're 16": "You walked out of my dreams," Ringo warbled in 1973, "and into my car." Very '50s. But the original version contained the more prosaic "out of my dreams and into my arms." The composers did not have the benefit of first attending a matinee of "Grease."

Periods are often remembered for extremes. Trends like punk rarely crack the media mainstream while still creating fresh outrage. Spears' Pepsi epics are at least anchored in their times by authentic jingles, but must pump up the period references to properly cue the audience -- the late '60s version shows her in full Woodstock mode. But did late '60s TV advertisers ever really play up the hippie ethos? It was also the Nixon era, and the Silent Majority were the ones with the bucks. (Coke's '70-71 "I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing" was more "Up With People" than hippie. And by that time we were post-Altamont anyway).

Most straightforward is the revival of 1989's Robert Palmer commercial, based on the "Simply Irresistible" video with Spears cast as Palmer. In this case the original ad did capture the era rather well -- besides, the pop cultural differences get subtler as time goes on. Unfortunately, 1989 is probably closer in style to 2002 than 1962 was to 1968.

It's always telling that, when retro-to-modern transitions like this are attempted, the "modern" segment is usually generic and not representative of any era at all. The millennium Pepsi ad would not have looked particularly futuristic 15 years ago. In another 10 years, perhaps some defining characteristic will have been added, something to tell audiences: "This was the decade."

However, the new ad may well have captured the current moment anyway, for one reason -- Britney herself. What other figure on the current pop horizon has a better shot at becoming the emblem of the age? You don't have to like it, of course. We can make our own history, but we don't get to write it.

By Steve Burgess

Steve Burgess is a Salon contributing writer.

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