Super Bowl ads: Violence + boobies = laff riot!

What do this year's violent, sexist ads say about our culture?

By Kate Harding

Published February 2, 2009 7:00PM (EST)

Until yesterday, I hadn't watched an entire Super Bowl in 23 years. When I was an 11-year-old living outside Chicago, with "The Superbowl Shuffle" on the radio every 10 minutes, I felt obligated to get (read: act) deliriously excited about the Bears winning their first Super Bowl. Since then, I've never bothered to feign interest in the game, not even when the Bears were in it again -- by that point, the Puppy Bowl existed!

Unfortunately, we just got rid of our TV, and even more unfortunately, there was no nearby bar showing the Puppy Bowl on an 18-foot screen. Thus, I ended up joining my husband to watch the Super Bowl in public. And the thing about not having watched a whole Super Bowl in 23 years is, I've never watched an entire series of Super Bowl ads as an adult. In recent years, I've seen some of the most egregiously sexist ones linked on feminist blogs, but I've never looked at all the ads together, as a body of work that might actually tell us something about ourselves as a culture.

Having done that yesterday, here's what I learned: 1) It's funny and awesome when women's clothes come off unexpectedly, via forces beyond their control. 2) It's funny and awesome when people get hurt. 3) It's funny and awesome when animals are anthropomorphized.

Now, obviously, No. 3 is just an objective fact. (Koala bear getting punched in the face? Not funny. Koala bear with glasses getting punched in the face? Funny!) But the other two are a little more open to interpretation. As Ken Denmead over at Wired (who is wrong about the koala bear but otherwise makes excellent points) puts it: "We get it. We like a bit of off-color fun once in a while. But these ads were so full of violence, cruelty, and sexism that something needs to be said." (Fun fact: He prefaced that statement with "Now, we're guys." If even guys who explicitly self-identify as guys to lend credibility to their arguments against sexism and violence are turned off, just imagine how we humorless feminists feel!)

Take the Teleflora "talking flowers" ad, in which a woman at work receives a box of flowers that immediately start insulting her. "You're a train wreck! That's why he only sent a box of flowers! Go home to your romance novels and your fat, smelly cat ... No one wants to see you naked!" As a friend succinctly put it: "Not just sexist, but sexist and dumb." Seriously, I don't even get what the takeaway is supposed to be here. Yeah, I got the "Send flowers in a vase, so you convey the right message" part, but it's not really clear whether the stream of invective is supposed to represent the woman's own interpretation of flowers in a box or what her boyfriend secretly thinks of her -- and either way, I'd like to send that woman a big bouquet with a card that says, "DTMFA."

Combining the hilarity of injury and sexism, we have Pepsi Max's "I'm good" ad -- in which men are subjected to a series of progressively painful-looking accidents, which are soothed by "the first diet cola for men" -- and Doritos' "power of the crunch" spot, which begins with a woman's clothes flying off and ends with a dude getting hit by a bus. (Quick, get that guy a Pepsi Max!)

The latter is one of no less than three commercials with a premise of "average guy magically gets beautiful women to wear fewer clothes." The other entries in that category would be A) a Bud Light Lime ad in which a six-pack of said beer creates a tropical microenvironment around the dude holding it, which means a hot chick instantly goes from being all bundled up for winter to wearing a miniskirt and tank top, and B) a GoDaddy ad so bad it made the rounds of feminist blogs well in advance of the game, in which three young geeks use the power of the Internet to place both Danica Patrick and "the German woman from the dean's office" in a shower with a webcam installed.

And that's where I completely lose any ability to roll my eyes and brush off the sexism. When you hear humorless feminists throwing around phrases like "rape culture," this is what we're talking about, people. It's so freakin' routine that women are treated as objects for the sexual pleasure of men, we're actually expected to laugh at the concept of a woman being stripped (and/or taken to an unknown location) against her will, because she's completely under the control of a man who wants a better view of her boobies. Three different times. These things are known as "sexual assault" and "kidnapping" when men do them in the real world, but if they're accomplished on TV by the power of a corn chip or a Web host or a six-pack, they're just high-larious riffs on what a Martian anthropologist would have to note as an apparently common American male fantasy. Of ... sexual assault and kidnapping. With no accountability. Ha! Geddit?

There were a few ads yesterday that cracked me up. Alec Baldwin for Hulu, Pedigree's "maybe you should get a dog" ad, and Coke Zero's update of the classic "Mean Joe Green" commercial from 1979. To me, the last is, like, the platonic ideal of a modern Super Bowl ad: It's nostalgic, self-referential, clever, unexpected and even a little bit violent, in an "America's Funniest Home Videos" kind of way -- but here, the violence is at least contextualized. It's not "guy gets hit in the nuts for no reason," it's "bad guys get what's coming to them." There's actual storytelling. And no boobies whatsoever. More like that for next year, please.

In the meantime, the most positive thing I can say about most of yesterday's ads comes from an acquaintance with far more experience watching Super Bowls than I have: "Usually, there's a little more homophobia."


Kate Harding

Kate Harding is the author of Asking For It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture--and What We Can Do About It, available from Da Capo Press in August 2015. Previously, she collaborated with Anna Holmes, Amanda Hess, and a cast of thousands on The Book of Jezebel, and with Marianne Kirby on Lessons from the Fat-o-Sphere. You might also remember her as the founding editor of Shapely Prose (2007-2010). Kate's essays have appeared in the anthologies Madonna & Me, Yes Means Yes, Feed Me, and Airmail: Women of Letters. She holds an M.F.A. in fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts and a B.A. in English from University of Toronto, and is currently at work on a Ph.D. in creative writing from Bath Spa University

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