In other words, here's my take on the Super Bowl ads.
The ads this year were a bit of a throwback, a thowback to the time when cavemen used to get married by bludgeoning some chick on the head and throwing her on his back and carrying her off to the honeymoon suite in some burrow at the base of a cliff. In fact, the ads were so misogynistic they made the Geico Cavemen look like positive role models for enlightened and Progressive thinking.
The ads were so notably regressive that with most of the fourth quarter yet to be played, the New York Times's media/advertising writer blogging the commercials in real time was already reporting blog commentary elsewhere on the net complaining about the gruesome misogyny. By midnight, Echidne of the Snakes' Misogyny Bowl pretty much said it all as succinctly as possible as quickly as possible. If you want a full catalogue of the crimes simmered in full-flavored righteous anger, read her rundown.
The Times's official Monday morning quarterbacking of the commercials which were provided for preview, by Stuart Elliott, enforced and confirmed the instant judgement:
And women were objectified by the likes of Bridgestone, Bud Light, GoDaddy, Motorola and Vizio.
and Elliott further confirmed the notion of throwback, complete with a Proust allusion, and a specualtive explanation:
[F]ew folks think of Marcel Proust as they watch the Super Bowl. But for the advertising bowl that took place inside Super Bowl XLIV on Sunday, it was one long remembrance of things past — with candy bars, mobile phones and beer bottles standing in for madeleines.
Nostalgia is a critical component of the pitches from sponsors on Super Bowl Sunday. . . .
The reason is, of course, the economy and the belief along Madison Avenue that tough times call for familiarity rather than risks.
But to my mind, the misogyny was too blatant, and the attribution of corporate risk-aversion to the state of the economy too superficial to explain the phenomena. For one thing, commericial advertising follows the popular culture, it does not lead it. In other words, there's a throwback something already operating in the psyche of the American male, a something that Madison Avenue was responding to. Else, why would Ad Agencies take the measurable risk of alienating female viewers by producing such troglodytic content? I wanted to know not just that the ads were notably misogynistic, I wanted to know why. And why now.
So, as I pondered the puzzle, it struck me that one of the main themes of the ads taken as a whole (No, not "Guys Without Pants," or "Guys and Gals at Work without Pants" but that might be an element of it) was to construct a Life Cycle narrative of the contemporary American Male. Individual and singular life experiences can be picked out from many of the ads and inserted into the overall arc, but the following four ads, roughly in order with some overlap and repetition, each constitute not only their own distinct narrative of the American Male life cycle, from conception to early middle age, but together they comprise a comprehensive narrative.
Like life itself, the narrative that emerges is not without its moments of triumph and fulfillment--but the denouement appears to be one of emptiness and meaninglessness. Existential ennui.
Since the first male in the series is the only one with a name, let's adopt it as the name of our main character standing in for the Everyman American Male. That would be Timothy Richman, the Cars.com guy, who we first met last Super Bowl, then take the remaining ads as a continuation or refinement of the narrative of Timothy Richman's life story:
Timothy lives a good life, useful to others and engaging for him, from infancy in a high chair, from whence he saves his family from a housefire, through adolescence in Italy, to grad school in meterology, before he is confronted by the seemingly insoluable crisis of trying to buy a used car .... but also ....
... As a young adult American male, Google-searching for direction in his life, he decides to return to Europe to further his studies, in the course of which, he crosses paths with the love his life, a charming Frenchwoman, whom he woos and eventually marries .... and ....
Dove for Men
... Filling in a few details from the earlier narrative, and including more exposition of the more mundane aspects of our Hero's life, we see him from conception, through boyhood, young adulthood and the previously established wedding. We advance the story, though, because we see him now happily settled in to a fulfilling family life, with children. Life appears to be as soft and sweet as baby's cheek--or his own Dove-conditioned skin. BUT . . .
... In the end, it all goes sour. Life becomes nothing but a perpetual series of compromises, tedious and pointless surrenders to the neurotic demands of others, demands which penetrate across every aspect of his life, and deeply into each aspect, no matter how private. He can't even urinate without being told how to do so. Except for that car, that new car that finally replaces that used car bought so long ago on Cars.com, life just isn't worth it. In the end: What's the point?
This, then, is the culture from which these ads erupted. Those ads weren't imposed on us by Madison Avenue--Madison Avenue sensed our angst and provided, if not explanation, then consolation. Thus, Stuart Elliott wasn't entirely wrong to suspect the state of the economy as the animating force behind this year's commercials, he simply had the causality reversed.
It wasn't because some Agency men were anxious about the economy--it's because we men are anxious about it. Our lives and livelihood and our identities are all at risk. So we're resentful and defensive and a little scared and a lot confused, and feeling powerless and vulnerable. So we do what we have always done when things aren't going well: Blame everyone else. Especially, the women.