Here we are again, with that wonderful sports/consumer/corporate/bread-and-circuses phantasmagoria that is the Super Bowl, and, with that, and in fact, central to the real purpose of it, namely, money, all those wonderful commercials. And wherever there is a great (or garish, or both, take your pick) American tradition, the American Revolution won’t be far behind. So, as we did last year, let’s take a walk through this year’s American-Revolution-related Super Bowl commercials. The common implicit theme? Race and the founders.
All three commercials play on the familiarity of the founders, but in decidedly different ways. A familiar fast-food chain produced one of the commercials. The others come from corporate newcomers to the Super Bowl commercial party, the first from a growing fairly new dot.com venture, the other from a first-generation dot.com survivor.
Let’s start with Jack in the Box. This one plays off our familiarity with Emanuel Leutze’s 1851 painting, Washington Crossing the Delaware. My favorite absurdity, besides of course Jack as GW, is the ship bearing what appears to be about a million Jack in the Box boxes. But in any case, we have GW apparently delivering a hamburger to what appears to be an African-American man. Remember that for our next one.
This next one will get a lot more attention. It’s an offering from Apartments.com. It’s another in a series of ads featuring longtime Hollywood actor Jeff Goldblum (The Fly, sure, and Independence Day, of course, but do you remember The Tall Guy?) in his continuing Apartments.com pitchman role as Brad Bellflower, “Silicon Valley Maverick.” It’s worth spending an entire minute of your life watching the over-the-top silliness of the whole commercial, much of which is a reference to the intro and theme song of ’70s sitcom The Jeffersons, but the part that interests us begins at :37, as we see, incredibly enough, on the penthouse, none other than some random actor portraying George Washington and rapper Lil Wayne, calling themselves George and Weezy, again a reference The Jeffersons’ title characters.
It’s not hard to see what we might find objectionable here—looks like slaveowner GW’s being cooked for by a black man, rather than in the Jack-in-the-Box, which had the exact opposite dynamic. If you watch each of the three teasers for the Super Bowl commercial, it’s pretty clear that GW is more buffoon than master overall. Context is everything.
Finally, here’s PayPal’s Super Bowl entry. There’s really only an oblique reference to the founding era, admittedly, but I think it’s important. Comparing its “new money” method of transferring payments as opposed to “old money,” it includes several face-shots of benjamins, that is, $100 bills, featuring our Revolutionary friend Benjamin Franklin. The striking part is around the :27 mark, cued up below.
As we’ve seen, what follows our old, white, male founder (and, for that matter, Canada’s John Macdonald) is a quick sequence of people of color, ending with a young woman.
The common implicit message here is what I’d call a very organicist one, that is, one that emphasizes a pluralistic nation as opposed to one that’s essentially white and patriarchal.
That’s quite a swing given the cultural heritage of the Super Bowl.