Psychoanalytic Excavation

A Look at What Lies beneath the Surface of Human Behavior and Motivation

Superbowl XLVI Ads: A Biopsy of the American Mind

Superbowl XLVI Ads key into anxiety in America

Each year, companies spend a fortune to buy advertising time during the Superbowl game. They aim to make the biggest impact of the year and to cement powerful connections and images that will lead to vital consumer buying decisions. To accomplish that aim the creators of the ads know they have to engage the viewers on an emotional level. And to accomplish that goal the advertisers need to guess right about the specific emotional state of their target audience, which in the case of the Superbowl is no less than the American people.

This year's ads were quite varied thematically, but two themes stood out to me: nostalgia and destruction/redemption. It's not too hard to explain the source of these themes -- our recent economic collapse and very slow recovery, a long and difficult war, widespread confusion about who we are and what our future is, make these particular themes good bets for advertisers trying to hook the emotional mind of the American populace. Both nostalgia and destruction/redemption play to the pervasive anxiety in the country.

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There's one other theme that is easy to spot and I'll dispense with it quickly--escapism. This is an easy grab for admen--who doesn't want to escape thinking about present day difficulties. Go Daddy was the most blatant company to pick up this theme, which actually has nothing to do with their product. Their frat-house ads with nearly naked women advertising website support is meant simply to make you remember the name. That's "Go Daddy". A multitude of beer commercials, some hitting the nostalgia theme, remind us to relax and enjoy ourselves, and for goodness sake stop thinking.

Coke's nostalgic graphic style

Nostalgia is a common defense when people are anxious or threatened, unable to make sense out of their lives, or encountering situations they feel ill equipped for. This state of mind captures the feelings of many Americans today.  Coca Cola's polar bear ads were strangely old fashioned, almost devoid of meaning and using graphics more typical of the 1960's. Met Life scrounged up a lot of ancient cartoon characterers, from Peanuts Charlie Brown and LInus to Mr. Magoo. Met Life wanted to make the reassuring point that "everyone was covered". It's hard for me to believe this nostalgia bid was effective,

Met Life's "Everyone" commercial includes everyone who used to be a famous cartoon character

 since the vast majority of the viewers wouldn't have any familiarity with these cartoon folks, and therefore no identification with them or comforting nostagic feeling. If Met Life had asked me, I'd have said that one was a no go.

To my mind, by far the best ad of the evening was Chevy's brilliant Silverado ad, showing a post-apocalyptic city (that is post 2012 Maya apocalypse) where only Chevy trucks and their drivers and twinkies seem to survive. The soundtrack plays "Looks like we made it" and the ad ends with a voiceover saying "From the beginning of your work day to the end of the world.".

Chevy Silverado owners after the apocalypse

  The ad captures the enormous, nearly catastrophic anxiety people live with today, mellows it with humor, tweaks it with clever references and a sort of twisted dose of hope, serving it all up in a visually stunning setting and a gripping and hysterical narrative. So says Chevy, implicity, yeah we're all desperately anxious, but we can survive with humor, fellowship and by buying Long lasting and dependable products. If I needed a truck, it definitely would be a Silverado. Maybe I do need a truck.

 

Prudence Gourguechon, M.D., served as President of the American Psychoanalytic Association from 2008-2010. She has a clinical and consulting practice in Chicago.

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